Young people and the law
This information applies to Scotland
It is against the law to discriminate against anyone, including a child or young person because of:
- race, colour, nationality, ethnicity or national origins
- religion or belief
- gender reassignment
- pregnancy or maternity leave
If a young person of 16 or over has got married or is in a civil partnership they cannot be discriminated because of this.
You may be protected from discrimination because it is against the law in the place where you are, for example, school, university, shops, pubs etc. For more information about discrimination, see the section on discrimination.
Crime, courts and sentences
Criminal responsibility and the courts
In Scotland the age of criminal responsibility is 8 years old and the age at which a child can be prosecuted is 12 years.
If a child under 12 is behaving in such a way that they may be at risk or vulnerable, for example, assaulting others or stealing, they may be referred to a social worker and ultimately a children’s hearing which can make a decision about how to help them and the family. A decision by a children's hearing can become part of a criminal record.
If you are aged between 12 and 16 and you commit a criminal offence you are most likely to be referred to the Children’s Reporter who will decide whether or not there are grounds for concern. A child of 12 or over can be prosecuted for a criminal offence and be dealt with in court if the offence is serious.
If you are aged between 16 and 18 and you commit a criminal offence you will be dealt with by the children’s hearing system or the courts. If you are going to court there is useful information on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service website at www.scotcourts.gov.uk.
If you or your child is faced with criminal proceedings, you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice.
Police - arrest and custody
The police have a duty to consider the wellbeing of anyone under 18 when they are deciding whether to arrest, hold them in custody, interview or charge them with a crime.
The police have the same right to question you as they do adults. For more information on how the police should treat people under the age of 18, see Police powers of stop and search.
There are special rules to safeguard children in custody. For example, If you are under 16 and you are held in custody by the police, they should inform your parents or someone with parental rights. For more information, see If you are arrested or held in custody by the police in Scotland.
If you or your parents think that the police have not followed the proper procedures when questioning, detaining or warning you, you can make a complaint. People under 18 can make complaints about the police on their own behalf, or through a parent or other representative. See Complaints and legal action against the police.
Courts cannot impose a custodial sentence on anyone under the age of 12. Young offenders aged between 12 and 15 whose behaviour is causing concern either for themselves or for the safety of the public will usually be detained in secure accommodation. Offenders who are aged between 16 and 21 can be sentenced to detention in a young offenders institution. A young person may be temporarily detained in an adult prison if suitable secure accommodation or a place in a young offenders institution is not available.
A children’s hearing can make a supervision requirement which means that you as a young person may have to live away from home either with foster parents, in a care home or sometimes in secure accommodation. You may be able to stay at home but under the supervision of a social worker who will visit your home regularly.
If your parent or the person who cares for you may be sent to prison, you may be able to ask the court to consider your rights.
No-one under 18 can serve on a jury.
For more information, see Jury service.
Civil legal aid is available to assist with the costs of court proceedings and legal advice and assistance is available to assist with the costs of seeking advice from a solicitor. If you as a child or young person have sufficient understanding you can apply for legal aid or advice and assistance. It is generally assumed that if you are 12 or over you have sufficient understanding. You are assessed for legal aid or advice and assistance on the basis of your own resources, so you will usually qualify.
For more information, see Help with legal costs.
As a young person you may want to appoint a legal representative, for example, a solicitor, to either start or defend legal proceedings.
If you are over 16 you can choose legal representation without parental involvement.
If you are under 16 you can choose legal representation as long as you are capable of understanding what you are doing. It will generally be thought that you have sufficient understanding when you reach the age of 12.
As a young person you can be represented in a range of situations, for example, adoption hearings, a children’s hearing or in a court. It is important in all situations where you are represented that you are able to give your own views. The court has a duty to consider the views of children if they wish to express them.
Everyone has a general duty to act with reasonable care. Failure to do so is called negligence. If you are under 18 you are liable for your own negligence and can be sued but your age would be taken into account when deciding whether or not the behaviour was negligent. A parent has a duty to take reasonable care to see that their child does not cause harm to others.
If you are under 18 you can be expected to give evidence as a witness in both a civil or criminal court. It is up to the court to decide if you have sufficient understanding to give evidence. If you are under 18 you will be classed as a 'vulnerable witness' and be able to give your evidence behind a screen, using CCTV or by other special arrangements that mean you don't have to attend the court hearing. These are called 'special measures'.
There are some useful leaflets about being a witness for children and young people at www.mygov.scot.
Scottish Child Law Centre
54 East Crosscauseway
Adviceline: 0131 667 6333 (Mon-Fri 9.30am-4.00pm)
Freephone (for under 21s): 0800 328 8970 (landlines) or 0300 330 1421 (mobiles)
Administration: 0131 668 4400
Legal advice email: email@example.com
The Scottish Child Law Centre offers free advice on a wide range of issues by letter, phone, text and email. You can get free information brochures on paper, sent to you free of charge.
Further help for young people
You can find more information about the rights of children and young people on this website:
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 family matters, see Young people and family.
For information about health, see Young people - health and personal.
For information about housing, see Young people and housing.
For information about transport, see Concessionary fares for young people.