Minimum ages

What is the issue

Children have to keep track of and obey an array of different minimum age rules as they develop, ranging from the age at which they can marry or vote to whether or not they are criminalised by the justice system. However, simple age-based restrictions are not always the best approach. These ages, often prohibiting activities adults take for granted, vary from country to country and sometimes across and even within particular jurisdictions.

What is the solution

CRIN believes that there are two justifications for setting minimum ages for specific purposes within the span of childhood.

  • To provide children with a demonstrated need for protection from significant harm.

  • To provide a benchmark for presumed capacity, because without a minimum age the onus is always on the individual child to prove capacity. In some cases a system for determining capacity may be appropriate, but setting a minimum age in addition ensures that after that age children acquire an absolute right.

When setting a minimum age, is a minimum age needed? 

  • The purpose (to protect children or ensure their recognition as rights holders)

  • What other ways exist to achieve that purpose without resorting to age thresholds?   

  • What is the level of risk associated with the activity at hand?

  • If protection is the objective, how effective is an age limit in achieving that protection? (E.g. much of the research on child labour shows that age thresholds are an ineffective way of achieving that protection because it pushes children into informal, unregulated labour.)   

  • What is the potential for abuse of power by parents or others of not having an age threshold? (E.g. not having a minimum age for the end of compulsory learning could mean parents choose not to send their child to school and use them instead to help with chores.)

  • Is a capacity assessment an option? If so, how and by whom could such an assessment be administered? (E.g. it would not be appropriate for a person selling cinema tickets to determine capacity.)

  • What are the adverse consequences of not having a minimum age?

If yes:           

  • Is it in line with all other rights in the Convention?

  • What age is most likely to achieve the purpose?       

  • Is this age in the child’s best interests?

  • Is the minimum age consistent with other laws and policies (or are these wrong)?

  • How can a minimum age affect decision-making?

  • Does this age discriminate against children on the ground of age?

  • Will this age affect certain groups of children more than others?

Minimum ages for specific issues

Minimum ages for some issues are unequivocal, while others are more complex. In CRIN's discussion paper Age is Arbitrary: Discussion paper on setting minimum ages, we clarify which issues should have a minimum age of 18, where there should be no minimum age, and those issues where capacity and age should be considered.  

Issues for which the minimum age should be 18

  • Voluntary enlistment and conscription into armed forces; participation in hostilities

  • Minimum age of criminal responsibility

  • Hazardous labour (this is covered as part of admission to employment)

Issues for which there should be no minimum age

  • Right to vote

  • Access to justice

  • Consent to non-therapeutic interventions

  • Children’s right to choose their own religion or no religion

  • Access to information about a child’s biological family

Issues for which capacity and age should be considered

  • Admission to employment

  • Beginning and end of compulsory education

  • Marriage

  • Age of sexual consent

  • Access to sexual and reproductive health services

  • Right to consent, or refuse consent, to medical treatment or surgery without parental consent

  • Children’s access to media and advertising