Age of consent in the UK

The article is written by Pruthvi Ramakanta Hegde. This article emphasises the concept of age of consent in the United Kingdom, it includes meaning, governing laws, the importance of the age of consent, ongoing debates and further emphasises the legal age for marriage in the UK.

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar.

Consent forms the cornerstone of healthy relationships, marking mutual understandings between individuals in intimate matters. In the United Kingdom, the age of consent is a benchmark signifying the age at which individuals are recognised as having the legal capacity to informed and voluntary consent for engaging in sexual activities. The applicability of the concept of age of consent is not limited to any gender specifications, instead, it applies to each gender. This legal framework underscores the importance of protecting the younger individuals from potential exploitation. 

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Age of consent means it is a legally determined age for consenting to sexual activities. It mandates that consent given by a person below such age is not valid consent instead it is considered as sexually abusive activity or statutory rape. The main purpose of setting the age of consent is to protect the individual who does not possess the legal capacity to make informed decisions about such matters. This will help to protect the child from exploitation and sexual abuse from adults. 

The ancient Roman and Canon Law were the legal system of Rome. These laws determined the minimum age at which females could give their consent. The minimum age of consent was linked to marriage by considering the aspect of puberty, which was typically occurring at the age of 12 years. Meanwhile, in those periods, social expectations were such that girls were expected to marry and reach puberty attaining this age, two aspects were considered while fixing the minimum age of consent in those times,  namely; the age of maturity and marriageability. Further, it is pertinent to note that no importance was given to individuals’ consent. Coming to the 13th century, certain legal changes took place. As per the statutes of Westminster law, sexual intercourse involving girls at the age of 12 years was considered illegal. This legal stance aimed to provide protection for younger individuals against sexual harassment. At the end of 1576, a significant legal progression was witnessed in the UK. It was decreed that crimes involving sexual acts with girls under 10 years of age would be classified as felonies, suggesting a heightened degree of legal repercussions. This effectively created a two-tiered system, thereby, differentiating the severity of offences based on the age of the girl involved. Throughout the history of the age of consent in the UK, it has undergone many changes. In 2013, Prime Minister Davide Camaeron rejected the calls to lower it, emphasising the protection for children at age 16. In the 19th century, significant changes took place with regard to the age of consent in the United Kingdom. During this time, the average age of marriage increased to 18 years and there was a shifting understanding of childhood. The link between sexual consent and child protection emerged for the first time, signifying a shift from earlier legal perspectives. Victorian lawmakers, reflecting the values and concerns of the time, sought to regulate and control female chastity. They have focused not only on protecting children from sexual abuse but also on maintaining social order and preventing what they perceive as disorderly sexual behaviours. The age of consent has become a tool for societal control. Further, the legal framework emphasises child protection, reflecting changing views on childhood and growing awareness of the need to shield young individuals from potential harm. The changes made during the 19th century have helped to frame groundwork for the modern understanding of age of consent laws, within the context of safeguarding the well-being of young individuals rather than solely focusing on social expectations related to marriage.

The age of consent differs with different jurisdictional laws. In the United Kingdom, attaining the age of 16 years is considered the age of consent under the eye of the law. This means that if a person attains the age of 16 they are competent to engage in sexual activities with someone who also attains the age of 16 or older in the UK as long as both parties agree. If someone is under 16, they are not old enough to give valid consent to such acts. In the UK, 15 territories which considered the age of consent as 16 years include Anguilla, Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, England and Wales, Gibraltar, Falkland Islands, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey Europe, Montserrat, Northern Ireland, Pitcairn Island Oceania, Scotland, Saint Helena Africa, and South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. 

In the United Kingdom, the age of consent is primarily governed by the provisions of the Sexual Offences Act, 2003 (hereinafter referred to as Act). Earlier the age of consent was 18 years, however, after the enactment of the aforesaid Act, it was reduced to 16 years. The legislation aims to protect the child from harm caused due to sexual acts. The legislation was enacted on 20th November 2003 by the Excellent Majesty of the UK Queen. Accordingly, Section 9 to 10 of the Act deals with various provisions that relate to the age of consent.

Section 9 

Section 9 of the Act states about sexual activity with children. The Section does not directly indicate the age of consent. The intention of the section is to protect and prevent children from such sexual acts. Accordingly, a person aged above 18 years who touches another person below 16 years with sexual intention is considered guilty, whether or not the individual is aware that the other person is under the age of 16 years or not. Sub-section 3 of Section 9 of the Act prescribes that whoever commits such offences shall be on summary conviction, imprisonment may extend up to 6 months or also fine can be imposed. If convicted on indictment, the imprisonment may be extended up to the term which is not extending 14 years.

Section 10

Section 10 states that whoever above the age of 18 years engages in sexual activity with a person below the age of 16 is guilty under the eye of the law. Sub-section 2 of  Section 10 prescribes the punishment of imprisonment not exceeding 6 months or a fine can be imposed, if conviction is based on indictment, imprisonment may exceed up to 14 years.

Section 12 

Section 12 states that, if a person attains the age of 18 years commits the offence by obtaining sexual gratification and with an intention to make a person below the age of 16 years watch such third person engage in sexual activity or such images of sexual in nature are considered an offence under the Act, though person aged 18 years or more does not bear the knowledge about the age of a person who attains the age of 16 years or not. Sub-section 3 of  Section 12 prescribed the punishment of imprisonment of not exceeding 6 months or a fine on a summary conviction, and imprisonment may be extended up to 14 years if conviction on indictment.

Children under the age of 13

The Sexual Offences Act considers that persons below the age of 13 are less mature enough to give consent for such sexual acts. Section 5, Section 6, Section 7 and Section 8 of the Act state that the sexual acts in connection with a child below the age of 13 are more serious in nature. Therefore,  sections prescribe rigorous imprisonment.  


Section 1 of the Sexual Offence Act 2003, defined the sexual offence called rape subjected to Section 75 and Section 76 of the Act.  If one person (let’s say A) intentionally engages in sexual penetration with another person (let’s say B) without obtaining their consent and such person doesn’t have good reason to think the other person agreed is considered a crime under the Act. In order to constitute rape under this Act, three aspects must be considered that includes:

  • B did not agree or consent to penetration   
  • A knew that another person did not consent.
  • A didn’t have a reasonable belief that B consented.

Whoever commits the rape under Section 1 of the Act if such a person is found guilty under this Section is punishable with imprisonment for life.

Consent plays a very important role if two adults are engaging in sexual activity. If it is not consented from either party that will amount to rape, as it is against to will of another person. Meanwhile, in the UK, the age of consent plays an important role in protecting individuals, particularly young people who are below the age of 16. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) has reported that 3.1 million people both adults and below the age of 16 years are being sexually abused. Age of consent is significant to protect the individuals below the age of 16 years due to the following reasons:

  • Age of consent helps to determine the individual legal eligibility for engaging in such activities by attaining a certain age, say above the age of 15 years. The concept of age of consent allows individuals to make their own decisions about their bodies and relationships. It supports the idea that if a person aged 16 years can have consensual relationships with another who attains the age of 16 years it should be respected.
  • Having a consistent and clear age of consent helps to bring clarity to individuals and law enforcement. It gives clarity and legal validity as it defines what amounts to lawful and unlawful in terms of sexual relationships by reducing potential misunderstandings.
  • The age of consent is designed to protect the minor from being involved in sexual activity. People below the age of 16 years are not mature enough to make informed decisions related to such matters. Moreover, such persons are not psychologically and emotionally mature to engage in such sexual activities.
  • In the UK the age of consent is often linked with certain child protection laws which aim to protect and safeguard the interest of children from being abused from sexual activities. 
  • Determining a particular age of consent mitigates the exploitation of adults. As per the law, a person aged 18 years commits sexual activity with or without knowledge of another person’s age that they are below 16 years will amount to an offence under the Act. This law establishes clear legal boundaries to avoid such exploitation of persons below the age of consent. 
  • Age of consent reflects societal norms and values by determining a particular age as a legally recognised age to engage in such intimate matters. The age of consent respects the community’s values.

Marriage and Civil Partnership Act

In the UK, England and Wales have raised the minimum age for marriage to 18 years as per the Marriage and Civil Partnership Act, 2022. The legislation was enforced on 27 February 2022. The legislation is enacted to address the increase in the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership. This change will help to protect the child from forced marriage. The Act amended certain provisions of other Acts, specifically those pertaining to marriage and civil partnerships. The legislation aims to prevent child marriage by safeguarding the child’s interest. The primary objective of the legislation is to protect individuals, especially children below the age of 18 years. Forced marriages can tend to coercion, duress or pressure and raising a minimum age is seen as a proactive measure to safeguard the rights and well-being of young individuals. The Act condemns the concept of child marriage and protects the children’s interests by prescribing punishment for the same. The legislation is designed to strengthen protections against forced marriages of minors and reflects a commitment to safeguarding the well-being and rights of children. Some of the important provisions of the Act are as follows:


Section 1 of the Marriage and Civil Partnership Act, 2022, speaks about the increase in the minimum age for marriage. Sub Section 1 of Section 1 of the Act amended the Marriage Act 1949. Accordingly, Sub Section 2(a) and 2(b) of Section 1 of the Act deals with marriages of the person under sixteen which is substituted to eighteen years. Amendments were made to Section 1(3) of the Marriage and Civil Partnership Act, resulting in the exclusion of marriages involving individuals under eighteen years of age, a provision that was previously listed under the Marriage Act of 1949. This suggests that this legislation banned marriage below the age of 18 years. No longer such marriage is considered as valid in the eye of the law.

Offences related to marriage under 18

Section 2 of the Act deals with the offences of conduct which relate to marriage under the age of 18 years. Subsection 1 of Section 2 amended Section 121 of the Anti social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, 2014, which relates to the offence of forced marriage in England and Wales. Sub Section 3(A) is added, stating that in England and Wales law a person is said to have committed an offence, if they conduct themselves with an aim of causing a child to enter into marriage before that child attains the age of 18 years is considered as an offence under the Act.  whether or not other actions include threats, coercion, violence or deception and it applies regardless of whether or not such conduct occurs in England and Wales. Sub Section 5(A) defines a child, in order to consider an individual as a child such person must be under the age of 18 years. Sub-Section 7(A) is inserted outlining the conditions for committing an offence under Section 2. The offence occurs only when:

  • The conduct aims at causing the child to enter into marriage in England and Wales. 
  • At the time of conduct, either the person or the child is habitually resident in England and Wales.
  • At the time of conduct, such a child is a national of the United Kingdom. Such a child has been habitually resident in England and Wales and is not habitually resident or domiciled in Scotland or Northern land.

Civil Partnership

Section 3 of the Act has made certain amendments to the Civil Partnerships Act 2004. The “civil partnership” is a legally recognised age that allows couples to engage in their relationships officially without marriage. The Marriage and Civil Partnerships Act set up the minimum age for civil partnerships from 16 to 18, which means an individual shall attain the age of 18 years in order to form a legally recognized civil partnership. The law states that if a civil partnership was registered when one person was domiciled in England and Wales and was under 18, it is considered void and thus, is not legally valid. The Act includes provisions for transnational periods, meaning it considers situations that occurred before the law came into effect. It clarifies that changes don’t affect the validity of the marriage or civil partnerships that happened before the enactment of new rules.

Recently, debates have been going on in the UK regarding the reform of the age of consent.  The comedian Russel Brand was alleged by a woman named Alice in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, claiming that she was forced into a relationship with him when she was 16 and he was in his early thirties. Meanwhile Mr Brand denies every allegation made by her against him. It was suggested to the government that there should be a change in the age of consent on the basis of the fact that if another person does not attain the age of 18, sexual relations with 16 or 17 years old would lead to statutory rape. Since individuals at the age of 16 are not mature enough to make such informed decisions. She further suggested revisiting the age of consent laws and said that if men are dating teenage females it would create imbalance and it will lead to abusive relationships. She further suggested a “staggered age of consent.” Accordingly, people who are under the same age category, say from 16 to 18 can have relationships with people of the same age but not with older ones. Lisa Durston, from SARSAS, a charity that provides support and assistance for those who are impacted by rape and sexual assault, opined that a significant age gap between an individual aged 16 or 17 and an older partner often creates a power imbalance, leading to extremely unequal and unhealthy relationships. Further, she said that, due to a lack of experience and knowledge about life, individuals between 16 and 17 years are not mature enough to make informed decisions. This power imbalance can result in the manipulation of the younger individuals, leading them to engage in such unequal relationships. Later, Dr Kirsty Welsh, a senior lecturer at Nottingham Law School, suggested that a set age of consent might be a simplistic tool and proposed considering consent in each case or setting a maximum age gap. On the other hand, Dr. Hannah Bows, an associate professor in criminal law at Durham University expresses doubt that reassessing the age of consent would achieve the best and desired effect, emphasising that existing laws should be robust enough to encompass and address the issues at hand. Some argue that existing laws are sufficient and that society needs to change fundamentally. 

The age of consent differs in different countries, pertaining to various jurisdictional laws. There are certain factors that affect the determination of the minimum age. There are many countries who have a fixed minimum age of consent. It may be divided under certain subheads, namely; some below 16 years, some above 16 years and some other countries have no fixed age criteria for determining the minimum age of consent, which includes as follows:

No age of consent

There are some countries which do not fix the minimum age for engaging in sexual activity with an underage person. Countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Libya, and Maldives do not consider engaging in sexual activities without consent as illegal. Instead, some countries like Qatar have a fixed age of consent to marry for men at 18 years and for women at 16 years.

Minimum age of consent under 16 years 

Most of the countries have fixed the minimum legal age for engaging in sexual activities. In many countries, a person must attain at least the age of 14 years to engage in such acts. Countries like Italy, Serbia, Albania, and some of the South American countries like Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay have fixed the age of 14 for engaging in such activities. Some of the Asian countries including China, Bangladesh, Chad, and Myanmar also followed the minimum age of 14 years.  The Philippines has set the age as 12 years and Angola has a fixed age of 11 years. Further, Niger, Japan, and Faso have set a valid age of 13 years for consensual sex. Some of the countries in Europe have fixed 14 years as the legally recognised age for such acts. Countries like Thailand, Poland, Greece, and Croatia have fixed the minimum age of 15 for consensual sexual activity. 

Above the age of 16 years

Many Countries in the UK have a fixed age of consent of 16 years. Along with the UK, some countries from other regions have set a minimum age of 16 as the legal age for entering into sexual activity including Canada, Israel, Australia, South Africa, Spain, Russia, New Zealand, Norway, Cuba, and Luxemburg. The age of consent in the United States is between 16 to 18 years. It differs with the various states depending upon the different jurisdictional laws of states in the US. There are 31 states in the US that have set the minimum age of consent as 16 years. The remaining eight states have set age 17 and 11 states have set 18 years as a minimum age for consent. In the US, Romeo Juliet Laws are applicable which reduce or sometimes totally exempt the person from facing any penalties when they are engaged in sexual activities with underaged persons. Some of the other countries including Mexico, Ireland, and Nauru also follow the age of 17 years as the age of consent. Some countries including India, Kenya, Uganda, Chile, Iraq, Vietnam, and Argentina have set 18 years as the minimum age for consensual sexual activity.

Almost every country has its own age of consent that determines the individual to have sexual activities or to engage in such relationships. In the UK, age 16 is considered the age of consent for such activities. This will help to protect and safeguard the child below the age of 16 years from forced and sexual abuse. The age of 16 years is considered the age of consent by considering maturity and knowledge regarding the consequences of such sexual acts. This will help to protect the child from exploitation faced by adults. Similarly, any adult person who commits or engages in sexual acts with a person below the age of 16 is considered an offence. The age of consent applies equally to every individual regardless of their sexual orientation. 

Are there any exceptions for the age of Consent?

There are some exceptions for the age of consent, it is often referred to as Romeo and Juliet Laws. This allows individuals who are close in age, usually within a certain age to engage in consensual sexual activity.

Can a parent or guardian give consent on behalf of a person below the age of 16 will it be valid?

No, the age of consent is a legally determined age in the UK, it cannot be overridden by parental consent.

What is the legal consequence if adults are involved in sexual activity with a person below 16 years old in the UK?

The adults who are involved in sexual activity with a person below 16 years in the UK are punished with imprisonment along with a fine as per Section 9 to 15A of the Sexual Offences Act, 2003. If a person is below the age of 13 a high level of legal consequences might arise.

Does the age of consent apply to online sexual relationships or such activities?

As per the Sexual Offence Act 2003, the age of consent is applied to sexual relationships including online interactions.

Are age of consent laws consistent across different countries?

No, the age of consent laws are different in different countries depending upon the different jurisdictional laws. The age of consent varies widely from one country to another country for example, in India, the age of consent is 18 years, in Canada and Israel it is 16 years, in Japan, it is 13 years. 

What is the age of consent for lesbians in the United Kingdom?

The age of consent in the United Kingdom is 16 years. It is applicable to both heterosexuals and homosexuals. There is no separate statutory age of consent for lesbian sex.

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