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Definitions of children, young people and parents

Who are children and young people?

This guidance relates to children and young people from birth until their 18th birthday.

We use the term ‘children’ to refer to younger children who do not have the maturity and understanding to make important decisions for themselves. We use the term ‘young people’ to refer to older or more experienced children who are more likely to be able to make these decisions for themselves.

The law assumes that by the age of 16 years, young people are able to make decisions about their own care, although there are national differences relating to consent to investigations and treatment. However, in brief, the legal position regarding consent for child protection examinations or sharing information relating to child protection concerns is that any child or young person can give consent as long as they have the capacity to do so (see appendix 1 to this guidance). If a child or young person with capacity refuses to give consent, you must respect their decision.

Parents and parental responsibility

In this guidance, references to ‘parents’ mean people with parental responsibility and other people who care for or look after children or young people. This might include other family members or adults who live in the same household.

A ‘person with parental responsibility’ means someone with the rights and responsibilities that parents have in law for their child, including the right to consent to medical treatment for them, up to the age of 18 years in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and up to 16 years in Scotland.

Mothers and married fathers have parental responsibility, and so do unmarried fathers of children registered since 15 April 2002 in Northern Ireland, since 1 December 2003 in England and Wales and since 4 May 2006 in Scotland, as long as the father is named on the child’s birth certificate.

An unmarried father whose child’s birth was registered before these dates, or afterwards if they are not named on the child’s birth certificate, does not automatically have parental responsibility. He can gain parental responsibility by reregistering a birth, by entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the child’s mother or by getting a parental responsibility order from the courts. Married step-parents and registered civil partners can gain parental responsibility in the same ways.

Parents do not lose parental responsibility if they divorce. If a child is taken into local authority care under a care order, their parents share parental responsibility with the local authority. If the child is in voluntary care, the local authority has no parental responsibility. Parents lose parental responsibility if a child is adopted. Parental responsibility can be restricted by a court order.

Adoptive parents have parental responsibility, as does a person appointed as a child’s testamentary guardian or special guardian, or a person given a residence order. Local authorities have parental responsibility if there is a care order relating to a child.

You may need to get legal advice if you are not sure who has parental responsibility for a child.

The only parental responsibility that continues until the age of 18 years in Scotland is the responsibility to provide guidance to the child.36 The Act refers to parental rights and responsibilities. In this guidance, references to ‘parental responsibility’ mean parental rights and responsibilities in Scotland.