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Children in Trouble with the Law

Your legal rights as a minor differ to the way criminal laws treat adult offenders in United Kingdom. For example, issues of alcohol and young people have a range of restrictions with differing penalties for children.

This section explains what will happen if a child gets in trouble with the police and how the justice system treats young people in custody.

What is the Age of Criminal Responsibility?

The definition of a minor in UK law is a child or young adult who is under the age of eighteen (18).

But, in England and Wales, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is ten (10) years old (8 in Scotland).

Why is that important?

It means the police cannot arrest children under the age of 10 and they cannot charge them with a crime. But, children under ten years old who break the law can receive other types of punishments instead.

Children Aged 10 to 17

Young people are considered criminally responsible from the age of ten. So, children over ten years old can get arrested by the police and they will be taken to court if they commit a crime.

But, minors between the ages of ten (10) and seventeen (17) are not treated the same as adults. Instead, they would be:

  • Dealt with by youth courts and given different types of sentences.
  • Sent to a special secure centre for young people (not to an adult prison).
Young People Aged 18

The legal rights for young people who are aged eighteen (18) means they will be treated as adults according to the laws of United Kingdom.

So, 18-year-olds sent to prison may end up at a place holding offenders between the ages of 18 and 25. It would not be a full adult prison.

Note: Some rules differ if a young person gets in trouble with the police in Scotland. For example, the age of criminal prosecution is twelve (12) years old.

What if a Child gets in Trouble with Police?

One of the responsibilities of being a parent means you can also get into trouble with the law if the police arrest your child.

The authorities can hold parents responsible if their child gets into trouble ‘repeatedly’. The same can also apply if you fail to take reasonable steps to control the behaviour of your children.

As a parent, if your child gets in trouble with the police, you might:

  • Receive a Parenting Order issued by a court of law.
  • Be asked to attend a parenting programme or sign a Parenting Contract.

Note: The aim is to provide support, and help you stop your child getting in trouble with the police again. As a rule, they are voluntary programs. But, a court may tell you to attend at least one of them.

Parenting Programmes UK

Local youth offending teams, youth justice organisations, and charities run the different parenting programmes. They base the programme on your particular circumstances and how it will best suit the child.

Parenting Contracts

Young People and the Law in United KingdomA Parenting Contract is a voluntary agreement signed by:

  • The parent and the child in trouble with the law.
  • A representative from the local youth offending team.

Signing a Parenting Contract means you agree to play an active role in helping your child stay away from crime.

Note: Refusing to sign means you could get a Parenting Order instead.

Parenting Orders

The court can choose to give out a Parenting Order – which usually last for a period up to twelve (12) months. An order would set out a list of things that parents and young offenders ‘MUST’ or ‘MUST NOT’ do.

Note: Getting a Parenting Order does not necessarily mean you will get a criminal record. Even so, failing to obey an order means you could be taken to court.

Children Under 10 Who Break the Law

Nowadays, the Children and Young Person’s Act 1963 governs the age of criminal responsibility in England. So, if a child under 10 breaks the law, they can be:

  • Treated in a different way to youths under the age of 18 (or adults) after committing a criminal offence.
  • Given a Local Child Curfew or a Child Safety Order (instead of being charged with committing a criminal offence).
  • Taken into care or have their parents held responsible for their actions.

Local Child Curfew

Being under a Local Child Curfew means the police have banned you from being in a public place between the hours of 9pm and 6am (unless accompanied by an adult).

Note: Local Child Curfews can last for a period up to ninety (90) days. Children who break this type of curfew can get a Child Safety Order.

Child Safety Order

Children given a Child Safety Order will have been placed under the supervision of a youth offending team. It can happen if a child commits an offence or breaches a Local Child Curfew.

As a general rule, the order would last for a period up to three (3) months. But, Child Safety Orders can last for up to twelve (12) months in the most severe cases.

Note: The court may place children who fail to comply with the rules of a Child Safety Order into care. Another section explains what can happen if your child is taken into care.

Rules for Alcohol and Young People

It is illegal for anyone under the age of eighteen (18) to buy alcohol. The police can stop young people under 18, administer a fine, or arrest them for drinking alcohol in a public place.

Likewise, for anyone under the age 18, it is against UK law:

  • For someone to sell alcohol to you.
  • To buy (or attempt to buy) alcohol.
  • For an adult to buy (or attempt to buy) alcohol for you.
  • To consume alcohol in licensed premises (e.g. a pub or a restaurant).

Young adults aged 16 or 17, accompanied by an adult, can drink beer, cider, or wine with a meal (but not buy it).

You may visit a pub (or premises mainly used to sell alcohol) if you are under sixteen (16) and accompanied by an adult. But, these rules vary and depend on specific conditions set out for that type of premises.

Note: Giving alcohol to children under five (5) is illegal. Check a section explaining how alcohol laws under 18 years of age apply to parents and the penalties for breaking the rules.

Under 18 and Serving Alcohol in a Bar (or restaurant)

Providing the licence holder (or the bar manager) approves the sale, you can serve alcohol in a restaurant or a bar at the age of 16 or 17.

Note: Some council authorities may restrict you to selling alcohol in sealed containers (e.g. bottles or cans).

Youth Offending Team

The role of a youth offending team is to work with young offenders who are in trouble with the law. They will try to help arrested youngsters, or those taken to court, stay away from further crime.

After looking into the background of a young person and how the law is affecting them, they can also:

  • Involve children in one of the youth crime prevention programmes.
  • Help young people, and their family, at the police station after being arrested and while attending court.
  • Supervise young people who are in trouble with the law while serving their community sentences.
  • Keep in touch with young people in custody after being sentenced.

As a rule, the first people to bring in the youth offending team will be the police. Even so, the family members and friends of young people can also contact them if they have concerns about child behaviour.

Note: The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales lists the youth offending team contact details including the names, addresses, phone numbers, faxes, and emails.

Who are the Youth Offending Teams?

Youth offending teams operate separate to police law enforcement and the courts. They function as part of local council networks and work alongside:

  • The police and probation officers
  • Health, housing, and children’s services
  • Schools and education authorities
  • Charities and the local community


Young People Held in Custody

Information in the section is a useful guide for young people in custody in United Kingdom. Find out what happens at a custodial interview and how to arrange a visit to youngsters held in custody.

Note: A different guide explains parole procedures for young offenders and what help is available.

Youth Crime Prevention Programs

A section explaining how youth crime prevention programmes work in the United Kingdom. Find out how young people end up on a programme and how mentoring can involve parents and families.

Young People and the Law in United Kingdom