How sweet is sixteen? Legal age limits in England and Wales

Published: 1st Feb 2018

In brief

Claim

At 16 we’re free from parental control, we can leave home, we can start a family, we can get married, we can start work, we can pay taxes, we can join the forces.

Conclusion

Correct, although in some cases parental consent is still required for under-18s.

“At 16 we’re free from parental control, we can leave home, we can start a family, we can get married, we can start work, we can pay taxes, we can join the forces.”

Emily Thornberry, 31 January 2018

Legally you are considered to be a child if you’re under the age of 18. Until you reach this age you can’t buy alcohol or do things like leave education or training (though you can leave secondary school at the age of 16). But for many other things the minimum legal age is 16. We’ve taken a look at the law in England and Wales in some of these cases.

Almost all of the information in this article was originally sourced from a House of Commons Library briefing.

Defining a child

Both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children Act 1989 define a child as someone under the age of 18. The UN Convention adds that this is “unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.” In the UK, children gain rights under certain laws before the age of 18.

Voting

If you’re in England or Wales, you can vote in UK elections, and referendums, from the age of 18. You can register to vote at 16.

Leaving home

You can leave home without parental consent at the age of 18. If a child leaves home, parents can apply for a court order to try and bring the child back. The court bases its decision on criteria including the age and wishes of the child, as well as any risks to their welfare in leaving home.

In practice, it is unlikely that a court would approve a parental order to bring back a child aged 16 or over.

Work

Children can generally start to take up take up part-time work at 13 years old. In exceptional cases such as if you are acting or modelling you may start at a younger age. If that is the case then a special license is needed.

From the age of 16 you can start full-time work in Wales, having met the minimum school leaving age. In England you have to stay in some kind of education or training until you're 18 and we've looked at that in more detail below.

At the age of 16 you may need to be paid through PAYE if you earn over £113, meaning you can be taxed. You also start paying national insurance from the age of 16 if you earn over £157 a week (as an employee).

Education

You can legally leave school in England and Wales on the last Friday in June if you have already turned 16, or if you are going to turn 16 during the summer holidays.
 
However, in England you must stay in some kind of education until you are 18—either in full-time education at a college, by starting an apprenticeship or traineeship, or in part-time education or training if you also spend at least 20 hours a week working or volunteering.

Marriage and civil partnerships

You can legally get married, or enter into a civil partnership at 16, although parental consent must be given in both cases if you are under the age of 18.

Sexual consent

From the age of 16, a person is considered to be able to give consent to all sexual activity with other people aged 16 or over.

It is an offence for someone who is under or over the age of 16 to take part in sexual activity with someone else who is under the age of 16.

Alcohol

You have to be 18 years-old to buy alcohol. But if you are over the age of 16 you can drink beer, wine or cider with a meal, for example in a restaurant, if you’re accompanied by someone over the age of 18. Children can also consume alcohol in private from the age of five.  

You can also buy liqueur confectionery from the age of 16.

Driving

You can get a provisional driving license and start taking lessons at 15 years and 9 months.

The minimum age for actually being able to drive depends on the type of vehicle. For some very small vehicles, for example a moped, you can start driving once you’re 16.

You can take your driving test for a car, and start driving, from the age of 17. That’s also the minimum age limit for driving a tractor or a motorbike too. If you want to drive a “medium-sized good vehicle” then you need to be 18 and you have to be 21 before you can drive vehicles larger than that.

There are some exceptions to the minimum age limits though. For example, if you have applied for the advanced rate of the mobility component of Personal Independence Payment you can start driving a car at 16 years-old.

Armed forces

You can join any of the Armed Forces without parental consent once you reach 18.

You can apply to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force at 15 years and 9 months and the Army at 15 years and 7 months.  You can’t actually serve in any of the forces until you reach 16 though.

For all three forces you need consent to join from a parent or guardian if you’re under 18.

Child benefit

A parent usually gets child benefit until the end of August after their child turns 16.

They can continue to get the benefit until the child reaches the age of 20 if they are in full-time “non-advanced education” or “approved training”—this includes GCSEs, A-levels, BTECs, and traineeships. Or they can get it until the child turns 17 if the child has registered for things like further education or training with a careers service.

Correction 2 February 2018

We corrected this article to clarify that you can work full-time from the age of 16 in Wales, but in England must stay in some kind of education or training until the age of 18.


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