Children and the law

Latest update: November 2019

Children are given legal protection when involved in legal proceedings either as a defendant, victim or witness.

It is important to note, however, that the legal protection given to them only applies when they are in court, and not before. Legally, a child caught in commission of a crime, by a press photographer for example, has no legal right to anonymity. There may be ethical considerations, but not legal ones.

The age of criminality for children in England and Wales is 10, in Scotland it is 8. Below this age they are deemed by law not to have the mental capacity to be guilty of a crime.

Children aged 10-18 can appear at youth court as defendants, and sometimes if they are charged with a very serious offence they will be tried at Crown Court. They may also be involved in proceedings at either as a victim or witness.

In youth court any child is granted automatic anonymity by law – Section 49 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 forbids publication of a child’s name, address, school or any other detail that would identify them.

In an adult court the judge or magistrates must make an order telling the media not to name the child, This is a Section 45 order of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and gives the child the same kind of anonymity as they would have in youth court.

Even where a child is not the subject of legal restrictions, care needs to be exercised on ethical grounds and the impact of publicity on the child and any vulnerable siblings ought to be considered. It is generally accepted the children should not be interviewed on subjects concerning their welfare without the consent of a parent or guardian.

The Editors’ Code of Practice, administered by IPSO, has been amended in regard to children suspected of a crime. Now, once a child has been arrested it would be a breach of the code to name them, unless a publication can show their name is already in the public domain and it would be in the public interest to name them.

Family Courts

In recent years the family courts have started to open themselves up to greater scrutiny by the media.

However, journalists covering such hearings need to take care.

If, for example, the proceedings are to take a child into the care of a local authority, the powers are exercised under the Children Act 1980.

It is an offence to identify any child as the subject of Children Act proceedings, so care would have to be taken to remove any detail that might lead to someone recognizing them from your report.


Written by David Banks, Media Law Consultant and Trainer. David runs the Law, Ethics and Copyright workshops for NUJ Training Wales.


Written By...

David Banks

David Banks is a journalist with 24 years’ experience and delivers NUJ Training Wales’ course on Media Law and Ethics. He is a media consultant delivering training to a range of national and regional media, NGOs, government, charities, PR companies, universities and the police. He is a trainer who has created and managed successful courses in journalism, media law and production journalism. He was co-author of 18th, 19th and 20th editions of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. He writes regularly on law and the media for The Guardian, The Mirror and The Independent. He is a frequent contributor BBC TV and radio news programmes.


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