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Rights of children & young people

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) defines a child as under 18 years of age. Once a child is 18 years of age they are legally an adult. There are, however, different laws across the UK that have different age limits for those leaving care, the age of consent and the age of criminal responsibility.

England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland each have their own legislation and guidance on keeping children safe. See: A child's legal rights: Legal definitions (NSPCC).

All mothers and most fathers have legal rights and responsibilities as a parent known as parental responsibility. A mother automatically has parental responsibility for her child from birth. A father usually has parental responsibility if he’s either:

  • married to the child’s mother
  • listed on the birth certificate (after a certain date, depending on which part of the UK the child was born in). The child’s father, step parent or second female parent can apply to a court to acquire parental responsibility. There are a range of other circumstances in which parental responsibility must be understood and explored, such as same sex partnerships, civil partnerships and surrogacy.

If a child is adopted, parental responsibility for a child is transferred from their birth parent or other person with parental responsibility to their adopters. An adopted child loses all the legal ties with their original parents. When an adoption order is made in respect of a child, the child becomes a full member of their new family, usually takes the family name, and assumes the same rights and privileges as if they had been born to the adoptive family. Adoption is a significant legal order and is not usually reversible.

Nurses, midwives and health visitors must always act in the best interest of the child, in line with the Nursing and Midwifery Council's Code of Conduct. A child and young person has the same rights as an adult in respect of consent and confidentiality, see: 0–18 years: guidance for all doctors (General Medical Council).

Children have specific needs and should not be regarded as ‘mini adults’. Services and facilities must be tailored to meet their needs. The RCN actively supports the principle that services should be developed based on the needs of children rather than professional and organisational roles and boundaries, see: Health care service standards in caring for neonates, children and young people (RCN). Caring for a child includes providing support and care for family members, including parents and carers. Organisations providing services for infants, children and young people must have specific policies in place, see: Policies to support practice areas caring for neonates, children and young people (RCN).

Page last updated - 17/01/2023