Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Child Definition:

A young individual who is under the legal age of majority, or who is the natural offspring of another.

Related Terms: Age of Majority, Young Offender, Minor, Adult, Parent, Adult Child, Child of the Marriage, Family, Custody, Child Support, Illegitimate Child, Legitimate Child

A minor; an individual who is not yet an adult or who has not reached the age of majority.

Most jurisdictions have defined child in terms of a specified age of majority. But where statute law is silent on the point, the common law applies.

For centuries, until age of majority statutes began appearing and taking over the law in regard to the legal definition of the term child, the common law had provided for the extraction from the ominous shadow of law, the concept of a child; someone too young to manage, wield or otherwise possess the full gamut of legal rights and responsibilities, or be subjected to the sometimes harsh punishments thereof.

In this context, Justice Southin of the British Columbia Court of Appeal wrote in R v Sharpe:

"In this judgment, when I myself use the word child, in contradistinction to when I am quoting someone else’s words, I mean those below the age of puberty. At common law, these ages were deemed to be twelve for a girl and fourteen for a boy. As, however, fourteen is the age of consent in Canada and has been, for girls, for over one hundred years (see the 1892 Criminal Code (of Canada), §269), I define a child as anyone under the age of fourteen years."

Or in the 1901 British case, R v Cockerton in which Justice Wills noted that statute law, at that time, deferred still to the common law boundaries of what was a child:

"No definition (in the statute) has been given of a child. It is impossible to lay down any definite boundary as separating children from young men or young women or any other description by which an advance beyond childhood may be indicated. Pratically, I suppose that at somewhere between 16 and 17 at the highest, an age has arrived at which no one would ordinarily call childhood."

But in Ogg-Moss, the then-chief justice of Canada's Supreme Court, Brian Dickson described child more thoroughly:

"Both in common parlance and as a legal concept the term child has two primary meanings. One refers to chronological age and is the converse of the term adult; the other refers to lineage and is the reciprocal of the term parent. A child in the first sense was defined at common law as a person under the age of fourteen. This definition may be modified by statutory provision.... No statutory modification, however, fixes an age higher than the age of majority which, in Ontario, pursuant to the Age of Majority and Accountability Act, R.S.O. 1980 ... is 18 years. A child in the second sense was defined at common law as the legitimate offspring of a parent, but in most jurisdictions this definition has been amended by statute to constitute all offspring, whether legitimate or not, as the children of their natural or adoptive parents ...."

In the context of family law, the term is usually used to circumscribe those young individuals for whom another, as a parent, is responsible. For example, the 2009 version of Ontario's Family Law Act defines a child as:

"Child includes a person whom a parent has demonstrated a settled intention to treat as a child of his or her family, except under an arrangement where the child is placed for valuable consideration in a foster home by a person having lawful custody."

Or Chapter 18, §46b-212a of the General Statutes of Connecticut:

"Child means an individual, whether over or under the age of majority, who is or is alleged to be owed a duty of support by the individual's parent or who is or is alleged to be the beneficiary of a support order directed to the parent."


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