How my age makes a difference

  • If you’re age 10-17 you are old enough to be responsible for breaking a law
  • You have to be treated as a child, and not in the same way an adult who has broken the law
  • If you are under 10, you can’t be held responsible for breaking a law

Until you are 10, the law in England and Wales says that you aren’t old enough to understand if you have broken a law or not. This means that you can’t be ‘criminally responsible’ for something you have done until you are 10 years old. This doesn’t mean that nothing will happen if you do something to break the law, but it does mean that you will be treated differently to a child who is 10 or older who breaks the law.

Once you are 10, the law in England and Wales says that you are old enough to understand when something you do might be breaking a law and is properly wrong, and not just ‘naughty’. This means that you can be taken to a police station while things are being investigated, and you might end up in court. You will have a chance to put your side of the story, but if the court decides that you have broken the law, a judge will decide what happens to you.

You will be treated as a ‘child’ – and your children’s rights apply - until you are 18.

What does ‘criminal responsibility’ and the ‘age of criminal responsibility’ mean?

‘Criminal responsibility’ means that you can understand that you have broken the law and done something seriously wrong and can be punished for doing this. The ‘age of criminal responsibility’ is the age when you are assumed to have this understanding.

What is the age of criminal responsibility in Wales?

In England and Wales, the age of criminal responsibility is 10. In Scotland it is 8 although this is likely to increase to 12 during 2018. In lots of other European countries, the age of criminal responsibility is older. The Welsh government can’t change the age of criminal responsibility on its own – at the moment this is something that is decided by the UK parliament in London.

What happens if I break a law when I’m under 10?

If you break a law before you are 10 years old, you don’t have ‘criminal responsibility’ so you won’t get into trouble with the police in the same way as if you are 10 or older. This doesn’t mean that nothing will happen to you.

You could get a Child Safety Order (CSO). A CSO can include a curfew, but can also include things like staying at home after a certain time at night and always going to school unless there’s a good reason why you can’t (like being ill).

Can anything happen to my mum or dad if I get into trouble with the police?

Until you are 18, your mum and dad, are responsible for you and for bringing you up, so if you get into trouble with the police a lot, a Court might decide that your mum or dad (or both), a step parent or a grandparent depending on who cares for you might need some support and encouragement to deal with your behaviour.

They could be asked to go on a parenting programme, asked to sign a parenting contract or might even be given a parenting order by a court to get them more involved in trying to keep you out of trouble. If a court gives someone who cares for you a parenting order and they don’t stick to it, they could end up being taken to court themselves.

What happens if I have a birthday when this is going on?

If you have a birthday between the date when you are charged with breaking the law, and the date that you go to court, you will normally be treated as if you are still the age you were when you committed the offence.

If the court decides that you did do what you are accused of, you will receive a ‘sentence’ which explains what will happen to you – whether you have to go into Youth Detention or whether something else will happen. The sentence you will be given, if found guilty of an offence, varies depending on your age. You can read more about different types of sentencing here.

If you are 17 when you break the law, but turn 18 before your case gets to court, and the court finds that you did break the law, the court can usually only give you the same sort of sentence as it could have done when you were 17. The court has to take account of different guidelines when it is sentencing someone who is over 18, so you may end up with a sentence at the more serious end of the punishments you might receive as a ‘child’.

The same applies if you are 11 or 14 when you break the law and then have a birthday so that you are 12 or 15 when you go to court (if you do go to court). The court can usually only give you a sentence that would have applied if you hadn’t had your birthday.

So if you are 11 when you commit the offence and 12 when you go to court, you can’t be given a Detention and training Order; and if you are 14 when you break the law but 15 when you go to court, and it’s the first time you’ve been in trouble with the police, you wouldn’t get a Detention and Training Order or a Youth Rehabilitation Order with surveillance and supervision or with fostering.