In England, a child is a person under the age of 18 years.

Along the way, you collect new rights, freedoms and responsibilities. Below we tell you about some of the main ones. Please get in touch if we’ve not covered something that matters to you.

Psst… We find it impossible to understand some of the differences!

Arrested and go to court

A child can be arrested by the police from the age of 10 years.

They can go to court to see if they are innocent or guilty of a crime from the age of 10 years.

Be adopted
  • A child can be adopted by a step-parent after living with him or her for at least six months.
  • A child can be adopted by a foster parent after living with him or her for at least a year.
  • A child can be adopted by a new family from 19 weeks old.
  • The maximum age for a person to be adopted is 18 years, so long as the application was made to the family court when they were under this age.
Be heard in a family court
  • There is no set age for your wishes and feelings to be taken into account when a family court is making decisions about your life and future.
  • A judge may ask Cafcass to find out your views.
  • Or you could write a letter to the judge.
  • Or you might ask, or be asked, to meet the judge in his or her office (called chambers). There is no minimum age for this. However, judges will want to be sure you have enough understanding to speak directly with them, and that being involved like this will not cause you harm.
  • A judge will never ask you to say who you love the most between your parents.
Buy fireworks

You have to be 18 to legally buy adult fireworks.

Adult fireworks are all indoor fireworks, garden fireworks and display fireworks.

Change my name

There is no set age for you being able to change your name. Legally, you would have to have enough understanding – of what this kind of decision involves and the possible effects of changing your name.

The usual practice is for a young person to be 16 before making such a big decision.

If a family court has made decisions about you, you may not be allowed to change your name until the age of 16.

If a family court has made a care order for you, your surname cannot be changed without first getting written permission from your parents or agreement from the court.

Drink alcohol

Incredibly, the minimum age for drinking alcohol at home is five years. (It’s a crime before this age for adults to give you alcohol – unless for medical reasons!).

You cannot buy or drink alcohol in a pub or club until you are aged 18. However, an adult can buy you beer, wine or cider if you are aged 16 or 17 and having a meal in a pub or a restaurant.

Get a piercing or a tattoo
  • You can give consent to a piercing from the age of 16.
  • Below this age, it all depends on your understanding.
  • There are concerns that piercing in private areas could be a sexual assault. That’s one of the reasons the government in Wales recently banned under 18s from having intimate piercings.
  • It is against the law for a person to give a child a tattoo.
Get married or enter a civil partnership

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 came into force on 27 February 2023. It altered other laws in England and Wales which relate to marriage and civil partnership. From that date, the minimum age a person can get married or enter a civil partnership in England and Wales increased to 18 years (from 16).

  • It is now an offence in England and Wales for any person to cause a child (someone under the age of 18) to enter into a marriage or a civil partnership.
  • Behaviour causing a child to enter into a marriage or a civil partnership will be an offence whether or not it involves violence, threats, pressure or lies.
  • All children who normally live in England and Wales are protected by this new legislation.
Have an advocate
  • There is no minimum age for you to have an independent advocate.
  • Since the main part of their job is to help you be heard, we’d find it strange if an advocate refused to be involved without the permission of an adult.
  • As a general rule, we think children who have enough understanding to find an advocate have enough understanding to work with an advocate.
Have a pet

The law says you have to be 16 before you can legally buy a pet.

Learn to drive
  • You can apply for a provisional driving licence when you are 15 years and 9 months old.
  • You can legally drive a car from the age of 17 years.
  • If you are getting (or have applied for) the enhanced rate of the mobility part of Personal Independence Payment (PIP for short), you can drive a car from the age of 16 years.
  • Everyone is legally allowed to drive a mowing machine (which cuts the lawn!) from the age of 16.
  • If it’s driving a bus you’re after – you’ll have to wait until you’re 24.
Leave care

Care orders last until a person reaches 18 – though children in care can apply to a family court to bring the order to an end earlier than this.

The law says independent reviewing officers must inform children in care of their right to apply for their care order to end before they turn 18. Independent reviewing officers must give help with this, if needed.

The government encourages councils to keep looking after children in care until they become adults.

In foster care, young people can continue living with their carers until they are 21. We’d like to see the same right for all young people in care.

Leave school

You can leave school at the end of June in the year you’ll be 16 by the end of the summer holidays.

Example: if you are 16 in August 2022, you can leave school at the end of June 2022.

Then the law says you must stay in education or training until you are 18 years old.

Make a complaint

There is no minimum age for you to make a complaint.

See information written about me

You have exactly the same rights to ask to see information written about you as adults have.

If you are in care, children’s social care must keep information written about you until your 75th birthday!

Adoption agencies must keep records about children who were adopted for 100 years after an adoption order was made.

Sent to prison
  • You can be sent to prison from the age of 12.
  • Boys under the age of 15 and all girls are usually sent to secure children’s homes or secure training centres.
  • Boys aged 15 to 17 are usually sent to juvenile young offender institutions, unless they are especially vulnerable – in which case, they will probably be sent to a secure training centre.

Secure children’s homes must follow the rules and standards of ordinary children’s homes, but children cannot leave and they are locked in their rooms at night.

Secure training centres have their own rules which are a mix of how children’s homes and how prisons are run.

Juvenile young offender institutions are prisons for children (under 18-year-olds).

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