Family court watchdog the Family Justice Council (FJC) will be looking at whether England and Wales should lower the age of majority from 18 to 16, in its annual debate.

The debate is titled, “Should the age of majority be reduced to 16?”

In light of the many pressing issues facing the family courts at the moment, we think this is a strange debate for the FJC to be having.

And as no explanation on the event page is offered by the family court president — who is also co-chair of the FJC — about what the age of majority is, why the council has chosen this topic, and why, more importantly, it has framed the topic the way it has, we are adding these details below.

The age of majority is defined as the age at which a child is deemed to become an adult in the eyes of the law, giving that person full legal capacity. Currently in England and Wales, children do not “become” adults until they reach 18 years-of-age.

Lowering the age of majority to 16 could have a deeply concerning impact on children. While it’s not clear why the FJC has chosen this topic, strained resources in the family courts and the child protection sector could be driving this debate with a view to literally cutting off thousands of children in need, just to save money.

Lowering the age of majority could lead to children being unable to access mental health services, social care support and other important resources inside the system which are often made available free of charge because they are minors, and because their families live below the poverty line.

It’s important to mention that while the law in England and Wales views children has having become adults in law at 18, scientists and child welfare experts disagree heavily on this benchmark, with some experts suggesting the brain is not fully formed until people reach 25 years-of-age.

Age thresholds are already problematic for the criminal justice system in England and Wales, which allows children as young as 10 to be tried in court for crimes. This boundary, which relates to the age of criminal responsibility rather than the age of majority, has been met with strong criticism from child welfare experts, many of whom say children are far too young at 10 to be fully responsible for their actions in law.

Lowering the age of majority to 16 also enables children to access a range of “adult” products and services. They would have unfettered access to alcohol, and would be able to smoke, gamble and buy weapons, which could be dangerous in situations where children are made vulnerable.

Children would also be able to vote, which would allow the younger generation to have a say in the way England and Wales are run, which is particularly important for them as they are inheriting the world adult policies and laws leave behind. Children trapped inside the care system could also free themselves from the system earlier, which could be an appealing option to children who feel they are not being treated well in their current placements.

But allowing children greater political input — or any other rights adults have which many children are more than able to embrace — does not have to come at the expense of stripping them of support or legislation which may protect them from harm or unfair treatment inside our legal justice systems.

Why the FJC has chosen to ask whether the age of majority should be lowered in its debate rather than for instance why it should remain the same or be increased isn’t clear, but it is concerning.

The event will be hosted by the president of the family court Andrew McFarlane, and includes the following speakers on the panel:

  • Ruth Henke QC – Specialises in the protection of and provision of services to children and vulnerable adults.
  • Deirdre Fotrell QC – Specialises in the law relating to children
  • Family Justice Young People’s Board member(s)
  • Shabina Begum, Solicitor – UN recognised authority on child, early and forced marriage.

Anyone wishing to attend the event can email giving your name, area of expertise, and contact details by 5.30pm on 24 November 2021.

Attendees have the option of watching the debate online as it will be live streamed using MS Teams, or go to the London-based venue and watch in person.

The web page for the event adds: “We will inform those applicants who have requested to attend in person whether they have been successful by 29 November 2021.”

The debate takes place on Wednesday 8 December 2021, from 5:30pm to 7:30pm.

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