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Who counts as a child?

In England and Wales, a child is anyone who isn’t yet 18 years old. This is the case even if a young person lives independently or is in the army. 

In Scotland, who’s considered a child varies across different contexts. When a young person is aged between 16 and 18 and needs support and protection, services will consider which legal framework is most relevant (ie such individuals may or may not be considered children). The national guidance for child protection in Scotland explains this system and how professionals should act to protect young people from harm, based on the circumstances.

Children’s basic rights

Children have a number of basic rights, which are protected by UK and international law.

Due to the Human Rights Act 1998, children share the same fundamental rights and freedoms that adults in the UK are entitled to. For example, the right to life and the right to freedom of thought, belief, and religion.

The UK has also signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). These state, for example, that children have a right to have a say in decisions that affect them and that children’s rights should be respected and protected both offline and online. Children have the right to express their opinions, feelings, and wishes about everything that affects them, and the right to have their views considered and taken seriously, regardless of the situation. The UN Convention also states that the best interests of the child must be the top priority in all actions and decisions that affect children and that governments must do all they can to ensure every child can enjoy their rights by creating systems and laws that protect children’s rights.

The UK’s Children Act 2004 reinforces the principle that all people and organisations who work with children must help to safeguard them and protect their welfare.

What is the law on child employment?

The law around children working is complicated and what’s permitted depends largely on a child’s age:

  • children under 13 are not allowed to work. The only exceptions are children taking part in performances, playing sports, and modelling. However, these children will need a licence

  • children of 13 years and older can undertake part-time employment on a restricted basis if permitted under local by-laws. A parent will need to check with their local authority to see whether this is allowed. It is the local authority that will set the conditions for 13-year-old children working, including the number of hours a day and times of day they are allowed to work and the rest breaks and meal breaks they should take

  • 14-year-old children can only do ‘light’ work. This means that they cannot do anything that may affect their health, safety, or education. They also cannot work longer than 2 hours on a school day and cannot work before 7.00 am or after 7.00 pm on a school day. On Saturdays and during the holidays they cannot work more than 5 hours a day. On Sundays they can work no longer than 2 hours. 14-year-olds cannot work more than 25 hours in a given week and must also have a minimum of 2 consecutive weeks of holiday in a year

  • no one under the age of 15 can work in a butcher, fairground or amusement arcade, deliver milk, or work in a commercial kitchen

  • 15 and 16-year-olds can work, but only up to a maximum of 2 hours on a school day and not either before 7.00 am or after 7.00 pm. On Saturdays and during the holidays they can work up to 8 hours. During the holidays they can work up to 35 hours per week

  • those between 13 and 16 years old must have a one-hour rest break for every 4 hours they work

  • young people can start full-time employment as soon as they leave school

Children must be paid appropriately when carrying out permitted work. The government’s website provides information about minimum wages for child employment.

For more information, read Child employment. If you’re considering employing a child, you have a child who may start working, or you are a child considering working, you can Ask a lawyer if you have any questions.

Medical treatment

Consent to medical treatment

Children can visit the doctor (ie their GP) at any time. Those over 16 are entitled to consent to their own treatment but only if the doctor believes they fully understand their own situation. If someone under 16 is not considered mature enough to consent to treatment, their visit to the doctor will still remain confidential if that is what the child wants. 

If a child is under 16, someone with parental responsibility can consent to treatment on their behalf. This person must have the mental capacity to consent. Only one person with parental responsibility is needed. If they refuse to give consent to a particular treatment, this decision can be overruled by the courts if the treatment is thought to be in the best interests of the child. In an emergency,  doctors can treat a child without consent if waiting for parental consent would put the child at risk.

Those over 16 can get contraceptive advice and treatment without their parents' consent. The same applies to those under 16 if the doctor believes that the young person understands the advice and treatment and its implications.

Confidentiality

Doctors have the same duty of confidentiality to children as they do to adults and so cannot tell a child’s parent about treatment without the child’s consent. Overriding a child’s wishes about keeping their medical information private, even from their parents, must only happen in the best interests of the child. This is up to the medical practitioner. 

The internet, mobiles, and films

Under 18-year-olds cannot buy goods online using a credit card (just as in physical shops), however, some banks allow children as young as 12 to have debit cards, which can be used for online shopping. Many online shops do not have age checks for products with age restrictions and so parents should make sure they talk to their children about the rules around and problems with online shopping.

Chat rooms can also be dangerous places for children, as people can register under different names and ages. Parents should therefore take steps to make sure children can protect themselves by establishing certain boundaries. For example:

  • children should not give their name, address, or phone number to someone online that they do not already know in reality

  • children should not send photos to someone they have only met in a chat room without discussing it with their parents

  • parents should know which chat room a child is visiting and when

  • children should not visit anyone they have only met online unaccompanied

Childnet offers guidance to parents looking to understand more about their children’s internet use as well as guidance on where to report online concerns or risks as a parent.

A child under 18 can legally own a mobile phone. They cannot, however, enter into a phone contract. An adult will need to take out a phone contract for them.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) categorises by age all films shown in the cinema or on DVD. For a description of what levels of language, violence, and sexual activity etc are allowed in each category, see the BBFC’s website.

What can the police do about children’s anti-social behaviour in public?

The police have special powers for managing anti-social behaviour which might apply to children. They have powers to disperse groups of 2 or more people and to return to their homes young people under 16 who are out unsupervised in public places after 9.00 pm. These powers apply only in specified areas, which must be published in the local press. These powers only apply to serious and persistent anti-social behaviour. 

Bikes, motorcycles, and cars

It is an offence for anyone, including children, to cycle on the pavement. A child under 10 is under the age of criminal responsibility and so, if they are spotted cycling on the pavement, they cannot be prosecuted or served with a fixed penalty notice (ie a notice of a fine). Fixed penalty notices can be given to those over 10 who are caught as long as they are deemed to understand. However, those under 18 will still be treated differently from adults who cycle on the pavement.

For their safety and the safety of others, it could be a good idea to ensure that children attend a cycling proficiency course and find out where cycle lanes in their area are. It is not compulsory to wear a cycling helmet, but parents should encourage their children to do so.

Only children over the age of 16 can drive mopeds and only children over 17 can drive motorbikes. If you are over 16, your scooter must be insured, registered, and taxed with the DVLA. A young person can get a provisional driving licence for a car from the age of 17.

Can a child have a bank account?

From birth, a child can have a bank account which their parents operate. However, many banks will insist that a child will need to be at least 11 years old before they can open their own account. A parent will, in most cases, need to be present to set up a bank account for a child unless that child is over 16. Grandparents can also open bank accounts for children as long as they have the correct documents. No one under 18 can have an overdraft or a credit card.

Can a child get a tattoo or piercing?

It is against the law to tattoo anyone under 18, even with parental consent. 

Parents can give consent for children to have their ears pierced from birth. There is no minimum age that children can have piercings without parental consent. The law is unclear on this. As with other medical decisions, young people themselves can give their consent if they are considered mature enough to understand their decision and its consequences. In Scotland, anyone under 16 will need parental consent to get a piercing and the parent will need to go with them to get it done.

Drugs, alcohol, and solvents

If a child or young person buys or is given an illegal drug, they can be arrested and charged either with possession of drugs or with supplying drugs. This is the case for any amount of an illegal drug (ie there is no minimum quantity required) and the drug could be held in, for example, a pocket, bag, or car. If someone under 16 is caught with illegal drugs they are automatically eligible for legal representation. The seriousness of charges depends on many different factors, such as the class of drugs and whether there is an intention to distribute them. Sentencing is often harsher if a young person is caught with illegal drugs near a school. If a young person under 18 is caught with illegal drugs, the police are allowed to tell their parents, guardian, or carer. If there is an illegal drug present in the family home, the parent or homeowner could also be charged with possession. For more information on the classification of different drugs and their penalties, see the government’s website. Note, however, that under 18s have different criminal liabilities to those of adults.

It is not illegal for children and young people older than 5 years old to drink alcohol at home. The legal drinking age at pubs and other licensed premises is 18. Young people aged 16-17 can drink beer, wine, or cider with a meal in such places if they are with an adult. Under 16s cannot enter a pub unaccompanied.  Children and young people can be stopped, fined, or arrested if they are under 18 and found drinking in public. If you are under 18 it is also illegal to try to buy alcohol or for an adult to buy or try to buy alcohol for you.

Solvent abuse is the deliberate inhalation of certain chemicals to get 'high', for example, glue sniffing. It is illegal to supply any solvents to somebody under 18 if the retailer knows or believes they will be used recreationally. Only those over 18 can buy gas lighters and it is illegal to sell aerosols and petrol to those under 16. It is not illegal to be in possession of a solvent or ‘legal high’, but the police can take and destroy them.

Are children allowed to gamble?

In the UK, the legal age for gambling depends on the product. Some products have no age limit at all, including:

  • private and non-commercial betting

  • equal chance gaming

  • prize gaming at entertainment centres or fairgrounds

  • category D gaming machines

National lottery tickets and scratchcards in shops and online have an age limit of 16. The following forms of gambling have an age limit of 18:

For a breakdown of the different forms of gambling products, see the Gambling Commission’s guidance

Criminal behaviour and criminal responsibility

The age of criminal responsibility (ie the age from which a child can be responsible for committing a crime) is 10 years old in England and Wales. It is assumed that a child aged 10 or older has sufficient understanding to recognise that they have done wrong. In Scotland, this age is 12.

Juveniles (children aged 10-17) can be stopped and searched in the streets without an adult being present. Although children cannot be criminally responsible until they are 10, they can still be stopped and searched by the police. However, there is specific guidance for the police regarding under 10s, who should be treated as exploited victims rather than as offenders.

Crimes committed by those under 10

If a child younger than 10 commits an act that would have been an offence if they were 10 or older, the court can make a child safety order. A child safety order means that a child will be placed under the supervision of a social worker or a Youth Offending Team worker to give them support and protection whilst preventing them from repeating the offence. Child safety orders can last for up to 12 months. Child safety orders can also be used for the following purposes:

  • to prevent children from committing an act that would be a criminal offence

  • if a child has behaved ‘anti-socially’

  • if a child is in breach of a local child curfew order

  • if a child is likely to cause alarm to others

A parenting order can be made at the same time, which provides support to the parents of the offending child. This reflects the fact that, although parents are not held directly responsible for the criminal acts of their children, youth crime can partly be caused by poor parenting. Parenting orders can be used in the following circumstances:

  • where a child safety order or an anti-social behaviour order has been made

  • where a final warning has been issued

  • where the child has already committed an offence

  • where the parent has been taken to court because they have failed to ensure their child attends school

  • where a child has been excluded from school for serious misbehaviour 

  • where a parent has either refused to enter into a parenting contract or has broken their parenting contract

  • where a parent is at risk of offending in any of these ways, even if they have not yet committed an offence

  • where a child has been excluded from school or has been involved in behaviour that would have warranted exclusion although the school has decided not to exclude them

If a parenting order is made, the relevant parent(s) must attend parenting guidance classes or comply with another condition, such as attending counselling sessions for up to 3 months. They must also demonstrate control over their child, such as ensuring they attend school. A parenting order can last for a maximum of 12 months. A breach of a parenting order is a criminal offence, which could result in a fine and/or community service.

If a child fails to comply with a child safety order, the courts can make an additional parenting order or even direct the local authority to apply for a care order.

Children under 10 cannot be put in custody, whether that is in prison or a secure training centre. However, they can be taken into local authority care because of their actions.

Crimes committed by those over 10

Those aged 10 and older are considered responsible for criminal offences in the same way as any other person. However, 10-17-year-olds are still treated differently from adults in certain ways. For example:

  • their case will be dealt with in the youth court

  • they will be given a different sentence

  • if they are given a custodial sentence, it will be in a secure centre rather than an adult prison

Final warnings and youth rehabilitation orders

The final warning system aims to reroute children from their offending behaviour before they enter the court system. Under the system, a first offence will bring either a reprimand or a final warning,  depending on how serious the offence is. Following a reprimand, the next offence will carry a warning or a charge. If a child receives a final warning, they will be referred to the local Youth Offending Team.

A Youth Rehabilitation Order (YRO) is the community sentence used for offenders younger than 18. The court can attach additional requirements to an Order, for example, drug treatment or a curfew requirement. The maximum length of an Order is 3 years. There is no limit to the number of times an offender can be sentenced using a Youth Rehabilitation Order.

Children in custody

Children can receive custodial sentences, but only in the most serious cases. For example, regarding violent or sexual crimes. If sentenced at the youth court, those aged between 12 and 17 can be sent to a secure training centre if they are persistent offenders. They might also get a detention and training order, where they spend the first half of their sentence in custody and the second ‘under supervision’. A life sentence can be imposed if the child is convicted of a specified offence, for example, murder, and the court believes there is a significant risk of serious harm to the public. This does not apply to Scotland, which has its own rules on children in custody.

Sexual offences committed by children under 18 in England and Wales, or by children under 16 in Scotland, are treated differently from those committed by adults. Although only those over the age of 16 can consent to sexual activity, sexual activity between children who are close in age and who understand what they are doing should not automatically lead to prosecution. A range of factors will be considered. It is illegal, however:

  • to take, show, or spread indecent photos of someone under 18

  • to sexually exploit someone under 18

  • for a person in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with an under-18-year-old in the care of their organisation. This could be a teacher or a care worker, for example

What are child curfews?

Either the local authority or a chief police officer can set up a local child curfew scheme. These schemes aim to control unsupervised children younger than 15 during the night. If used, a curfew notice would apply during particular, specified hours which must fall between 9.00 pm and 6.00 am. The curfew can last for a maximum of 90 days. For a notice to be given, there must be persistent anti-social behaviour in the area.

What are the privacy and data protection laws for children?

The UK’s data protection laws (including the Data Protection Act 2018 and the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)) require that children’s personal data (ie information about an individual from which they may be identified) receives specific protection

Children also have the same rights as adults over their personal data, for example, the right to be told how their data will be processed (eg used or stored). Children have the same rights to access information as adults and no assumption should be made about their degree of understanding.

Children must be at least 13 to provide consent for an information society service (for example, a social media platform, app, connected toy, or search engine) to process their personal data. Parents must provide this permission if the child is under 13.

Data protection law places great importance on asking a child for their consent before sharing their personal information. However, if someone has a child protection concern, they should share this with relevant agencies (eg emergency services) even if they have not been given consent.

Generally, only those with parental responsibility have the right of access to information about a child’s educational, medical, and Children’s Service records. If a resident parent refuses to disclose medical information about a child, a non-resident parent can directly approach a medical practitioner with a request for information, although the medical practitioner may ask the parent to demonstrate that they have parental responsibility before any disclosures are made.

Individuals over 16 will generally be consulted before their personal information is released to parents. However, the need to act according to the wishes of the child will be overridden if the child is at risk of serious harm.

For more information, read Parents’ rights and responsibilities.


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