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Young people and the law

About this information

In this information, child means someone aged under 14 and young person means someone aged 14 or over but under 18. A Parent means someone with parental responsibility.


If you are over the age of ten you can be fingerprinted, photographed and searched while you are in police custody. If you are 16 or over and have been involved in anti social behaviour, you may be issued with a penalty notice. This is a notice for an on the spot fine. Community support officers can also take action against young people if they are behaving in an anti-social way. For more information about anti-social behaviour, see under heading Anti-social behaviour.

The procedures governing the treatment of children and young people by the police are set out in the codes of practice made as a result of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (the PACE codes). If these procedures are not followed, the case may be dismissed. Disciplinary proceedings can be brought against police officers who break these codes of practice.

You should seek advice in these circumstances from a local law centre - see under heading Further help.

Anti-social behaviour

Anti-social behaviour is behaviour likely to cause alarm, distress, or harassment. Examples of anti-social behaviour include, vandalism, graffiti, throwing fireworks in the street, throwing stones at trains, and causing a nuisance to others.

In England and Wales, the following measures can be taken to address anti-social behaviour by children and young people:

  • parents can be asked to enter into a parenting contract to help improve their child's behaviour. A parenting contract may involve the parent attending counselling or guidance sessions
  • the police and community support officers can take action. For example, an officer can order someone to stop cycling on the pavement and disperse groups of young people. It is a criminal offence to refuse to follow these instructions. A community support officer can also detain someone for up to 30 minutes if they refuse to supply their name and address
  • the police and community support officers can issue an on-the-spot fine (penalty notice) to anyone aged 16 or over (10 or over in some areas)
  • bodies such as a local authority, the police, and some social landlords can apply to court for an anti-social behaviour order. It is a criminal offence to disobey an anti-social behaviour order
  • the police or a local authority can apply for a gang injunction against a young person aged 14 or over. If a term of the injunction is broken, the young person will be brought before a court and punished
  • a parenting order can be made if a child is convicted of an offence or if a young person has been involved in anti-social behaviour. It is a criminal offence for a parent to disobey a parenting order
  • a drink banning order can be made against a young person aged 16 and over who has been involved in criminal or disorderly behaviour under the influence of alcohol.

Criminal proceedings

A child under ten is not considered to be capable of deciding whether an action is right or wrong. They cannot be taken to court and charged with a criminal offence. If you are aged ten but under 14 years old you are considered to be responsible for a criminal offence and are treated in the same way as any young person under 18. This means that you can face criminal proceedings, although your case will normally be dealt with in a youth court.

If you or your child is faced with criminal proceedings, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

Civil proceedings

If you are under 18, you cannot normally start court proceedings in your own name and a litigation friend (next friend in Northern Ireland) - usually your parent - must act on your behalf.

As a child or young person you cannot normally be sued for breach of contract because, in most circumstances, you cannot enter into a contract which is enforceable in a court.


If you're 14 or over, you will normally be expected to give evidence as a witness under oath. If you’re under 14, you'll normally give evidence without swearing an oath.

If you're under 18 (17 in Northern Ireland), the court may help you to give evidence using special measures. You may be able to give evidence:

  • by live TV link
  • from behind a screen
  • by video recorded statement.

You should speak to your solicitor or to the witness care officer if you need special measures to give evidence.


As a child or young person you can be sued for negligence through your parent. Negligence is defined as failure to act with reasonable care thus causing damage to other people or property. An injured party has the right to sue for compensation. An example of negligence is riding a bicycle in a manner which results in personal injury or damage to property.

When taking court action against a child or young person for negligence, the person taking action (the claimant) should name the child or young person as the defendant and a parent or guardian who can act as the litigation friend (next friend in Northern Ireland).

The age of the child or young person will be taken into account when deciding whether behaviour is negligent. There is no point in someone suing a young person who does not have money unless, for example, the young person is insured. However, someone who successfully sues a child or young person aged under 16 may wait until the child is working before enforcing the judgment. Judgments must be enforced within six years.

A parent can be held liable for their child’s negligence if the parent failed to take reasonable care to see that the child did not cause harm to others.

This is a complex area and you should seek advice from an experienced adviser such as at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.

If you are a child or young person, you can apply for legal aid. In some cases only your own financial circumstances will be taken into account and in other cases the financial circumstances of your parents will also be taken into account.

If you are a child or young person who has been arrested for a criminal offence, you have the same rights to legal advice (including criminal legal aid) as an adult. If you are under 18, you don't have to meet certain financial eligibility conditions that adults might have to meet.

For more information about legal aid, in England and Wales see Help with legal costs, and in Northern Ireland see Help with legal costs.

Further help

Coram Children's Legal Centre (England)
Riverside Office Centre
Century House North
North Station Road

Child and family law advice line: 0300 330 5480 (Monday to Friday from 8.00am to 6.00pm)

Education law advice line: 0300 330 5485 (Monday to Friday from 8.00am to 6.00pm)

Migrant Children's Project advice line: 020 7636 8505 (Tuesday to Thursday from 10.00am to 4.00pm)

Head office: 01206 714650
Fax: 01206 714660
Email: (for general enquiries only, no legal questions can be answered by email)
Website for young people:

Coram Children's Legal Centre provides free legal advice and sometimes representation to children and parents on family, child and education law. The centre has lots of useful fact sheets on its website.

The centre also has a specialist helpline for migrant children, their families and advisers.

Law Centres Network

Floor 1, Tavis House
1-6 Tavistock Square

Tel: 020 3637 1330 (admin only)
Email: contact form available on the website

The Law Centres Network can provide addresses of local law centres.

Children's Law Centre (Northern Ireland)

Third Floor
Philip House
123-137 York Street
BT15 1AB
Tel: 028 9024 5704
Fax: 028 9024 5679

The Children's Law Centre helps young people and their parents. They can advise on laws that affect children and young people.

Further information for young people

You can find more information about the rights of children and young people elsewhere in Adviceguide.

For information about the general rights of children and young people, see Young people's rights.
For information about employment, see Young people and employment.
For information about housing, see Young people and housing.
For information about family matters, see Young people and family.
For information about money and consumer rights, see Young people – money and consumer rights.
For information about benefits, see Young people and benefits.
For information about health and personal issues, see Young people – health and personal.
For information about transport, see Young people – travel and transport.

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