Age of majority

The age of majority is the age at which a child becomes an adult and acquires full legal capacity. It means that a person can engage in legal activities and is liable for any contractual obligations.

The age of majority is 18 years in all EU Member States except for Scotland, where children are considered to have full legal capacity from the age of 16 years.

If a child becomes a parent or gets married before reaching the age of majority, in some Member States the child gains full legal capacity. In other Member States, married children will only gain partial legal capacity. For example, they are no longer subject to parental control and can act with regard to their personal needs, but may not be allowed to dispose of immovable property or borrow money. Some Member States also provide for a guardian for children who become parents.

A variety of terms

The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines children as all “human beings below the age of eighteen years”. However, for other terms there is no definition. For example, no international law defines ‘youth’ and various definitions exist. In addition, most Member States do not define the terms ‘child’, ‘minor’, ‘youth’ and ‘adolescents’ universally. The application of the terms varies depending on the regulatory context. Often the terms are not defined explicitly but are used in different provisions that add a specific age limit.

In line with the definition of the CRC, FRA does not use the term ‘minors’ or ‘adolescents’, instead using ‘children’ for all persons below 18 years.

The term ‘child’ is widely used in all forms of legislation, ranging from children acts, criminal codes, welfare acts, child protection laws, labour laws, etc. In most legislation, it refers to all children below 18 years of age. However, it may also be used to distinguish younger children from adolescents, as in some criminal laws.

The term ‘minor’ is mostly used in civil or criminal codes, describing all children below 18 years. Fourteen Member States define the term ‘minor’ in their civil code, with each referring to children aged from 0–18 years. In some Member States, the criminal code refers to an age range of 14–18 years. National criminal codes also use ‘youngster’, ‘young person’, and ‘juvenile’, sometimes referring to different age groups.

In EU Member States, the term ‘youth’ is the only term used to describe an age group that goes beyond 18 years. It is often used when States want to include young adults as well, sometimes up to the age of 30 years. The UN’s definition on the term ‘youth’ includes all persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years; UNESCO uses a wider and more flexible definition depending on the context. In the EU Strategy for Youth, the term ‘youth’ refers to teenagers and young adults aged between 13 and 30 years. EUROSTAT statistics consider the youth population to be aged between 15 and 29 years.

The term ‘adolescent’ refers to the time when a child develops into an adult. In General Comment No. 20 on adolescents, the CRC Committee recognises that children reach puberty at different ages and does not seek to give a clear definition, but instead focuses on the period of childhood from the age of 10 until the 18th birthday. The term is less defined in national legislation; only five Member States use it to describe children between the ages of 12/15/16 and 18 years.