Young people and the law
This information applies to Scotland.
Crime, courts and sentences
In Scotland the age of criminal responsibility is 12 years old.
Children under 12
Children under 12 can be referred to a children's hearing if they appear to be at risk or vulnerable, for example because they're assaulting others or stealing. They're referred for their own care and protection, not for committing an offence. The hearing can decide how to help them and their family, which might be a compulsory supervision order.
Children under 12 can't be convicted or get a criminal record.
Children aged from 12 to 15
If you're aged from 12 to 15 and you commit a criminal offence, you're most likely to be referred to the Children’s Reporter, who'll decide whether to refer you to a children's hearing. A decision by a children's hearing can become part of a criminal record.
A child of 12 or over can also be prosecuted for a criminal offence in court if the offence is serious.
Young people aged from 16 to 18
If you're aged from 16 to 18 and you commit a criminal offence, you'll usually be dealt with by the courts. You can only be called to a children’s hearing if you're already subject to an order from a children’s hearing. There's useful information if you're going to court on the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service website.
If you or your child is faced with criminal proceedings, you should get legal advice as soon as possible.
Sentences and detention
Courts can't impose a prison sentence on anyone under the age of 12.
Young offenders aged from 12 to 15 whose behaviour is causing concern either for themselves or for the safety of the public will usually be detained in secure accommodation. Offenders aged from 16 to 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 isn't available.
A children’s hearing can make a compulsory supervision order, 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 is sent to prison, you may be able to ask the court to consider your rights.
If you’re under 16, you can only be responsible for a debt if it’s for something you need day to day. This could include a mobile phone contract, clothes or food. If you’re under 16 and not sure if you’re liable for a debt, contact your nearest Citizens Advice Bureau.
It's against the law to discriminate against anyone, including a child or young person, because of:
- gender reassignment
- pregnancy or maternity leave
- race, colour, nationality, ethnicity or national origins
- religion or belief
If a person aged 16 or over has got married or is in a civil partnership, they can't be discriminated against because of this.
You may be protected from discrimination because it's against the law in the place where you are, for example a school, university, shop or pub.
Read more about discrimination.
No one under the age of 18 can serve on a jury.
Read more about jury service.
Civil legal aid is available to help with the costs of court proceedings, and legal advice and assistance is available to help 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's generally assumed that if you're 12 or over you have sufficient understanding. You're assessed for legal aid or advice and assistance on the basis of your own resources, so you'll usually qualify.
Read more about 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're 16 or over, you can choose legal representation without parental involvement.
If you're under 16, you can choose legal representation as long as you understand what you're 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 an adoption hearing, a children’s hearing or a courtroom. It's important in all situations where you're represented that you can 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. Failing to do so is called negligence. If you're under 18, you're liable for your own negligence and can be sued, but your age would be taken into account when deciding whether the behaviour was negligent. A parent has a duty to take reasonable care to see that their child doesn't cause harm to others.
Police - arrest and custody
The police have a duty to consider the well-being of anyone under 18 when they decide whether to arrest, hold in custody, interview or charge a person with a crime.
The police have the same right to question you as they do with 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're under 16 and you're held in custody by the police, they should inform your parents or someone with parental rights. Read more about what to do if you're arrested or held in custody by the police.
If you or your parents think that the police haven't 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. Read more about complaints and legal action against the police.
If you're under 18, you can be expected to give evidence as a witness in either a civil or a criminal court. It's up to the court to decide if you have sufficient understanding to give evidence. If you're under 18, you'll be classed as a vulnerable witness and can 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 on the mygov.scot website.
Further help for young people
You can find more information about the rights of children and young people on these pages:
- young people's rights
- young people and employment
- young people and family
- young people - health and personal
- young people and housing
- concessionary fares for young people
Scottish Child Law Centre
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.
Scottish Child Law Centre
91 George Street
Adviceline: 0131 667 6333, Monday to Friday 9.30am to 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
Young Scot Lawline
Young Scot Lawline is a free, confidential helpline available to anyone aged from 11 to 25. It’s open 24 hours a day and offers legal advice on any legal problem, including:
- children’s panel hearings
- claiming accident compensation
- consumer rights
- criminal law and youth justice issues
- support if you have a mental health issue or are facing a mental health tribunal
- understanding your welfare rights and whether you're entitled to benefits
- unfair dismissal or discrimination at work.
Young Scot Lawline
Tel: 0808 801 0801 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)