Youth and Civil Justice

Young people have an array of civil legal needs beyond criminal, parental custody and access disputes, and child protection matters.

A young person who does not have the benefit of parents or other adults advocating for them faces many of the same legal issues confronting adults. Young people may lack the support of adults for many different reasons; for example, some are homeless and have left their families of origin due to unhealthy, dysfunctional and abusive relationships.

Some of the broader civil legal issues young people confront include:

  • Family law matters - Young people who are parents themselves may require legal representation to access the full range of family law remedies in regard to their own children, including: protection and restraining orders, guardianship/ parenting/ custody /access orders; and child support orders.

    Young people may be expected to become involved in family mediation (or mediation with respect to any issue). They may need an advocate or legal counsel to attend for or with them.

    Some young women require annulments of forced marriages.
  • Emancipation - In family conflict situations, young people frequently ask about emancipation – ie. “when is it legal for me to leave home?” Quebec is the only Canadian province that recognizes any form of youth ‘emancipation’. Child protection authorities may use the language of emancipation in the context of a young person contracting directly with them to live independently before they reach the age of majority. This option, however, is only available to young people who meet minimum protection standards within the context of provincial and territorial child welfare legislation.

    Young people not connected with the child protection system who leave home may need to seek a new guardian. This generally involves a legal process and the need for legal support. Some young people in these circumstances feel they are responsible for the safety of younger siblings and do not know where to turn for protection and supportive services for their siblings. Some young persons in these situations also need assistance registering for school, acquiring identification documents or obtaining child support and benefits for themselves.

    Many young people who leave home have no ability to recover their own property and require assistance from the police or the courts in order to obtain their identification documents, money and/or personal belongings. These young people may want ongoing access to their siblings which, absent the consent of the parents, requires the commencement of court proceedings. Young persons may also wish or need to change their names without parental consent, claims which are not always supported by the courts.

Other areas of civil jurisdiction impacting on youth include:

  • Identity – children and young people who have been adopted or whose contact with family members has otherwise been terminated may seek to know or obtain information about their biological parents, grandparents or other relatives
  • Estates and inheritances - young people lacking adult advocates may face estate and inheritance issues
  • Employment – when young people work they may need legal assistance with getting paid, or working in acceptable conditions
  • Landlord and tenant – young people may require assistance in negotiating leases or enforcing their terms
  • Civil litigation – this includes motor vehicle accidents as both plaintiffs and defendants; issues relating to the return of personal property; and consumer and contract disputes over cell phones, vehicle purchases, and opening bank accounts
  • Business - some young people require legal assistance to establish their own businesses, often online, or to form not-for-profit organizations
  • Administrative Law - young people may need to deal with quasi-judicial bodies (e.g. school attendance boards); some confront bullying and other abusive relationships in a broad range of situations and do not wish to involve the police or school officials but may nonetheless want other assistance

As with adults in poverty, young people often encounter a cluster of legal issues.

Practice Essentials

  • Different considerations and approaches are required when working with young people:
    • patience and commitment in communication - youth may disappear for months, only to reappear later; their cell phones frequently cease operation and the favoured method of communication may be texting; it may take longer to explain legal concepts to young people
    • young people may need more follow-up and support to complete tasks
    • consider travelling to where the young person is located as an office may not be a comfortable environment for them or they may have logistical difficulties getting there (ie. lack of funds)
  • Legal aid may be available to young persons in some situations (e.g. minor parents in Ontario seeking custody/access/parenting orders may qualify for Legal Aid assistance)
  • Legal assistance/representation may be available to young persons in some jurisdictions for certain civil justice matters (e.g. Ontario’s Office of the Children’s Lawyer provides legal services to children in certain property rights (civil litigation) and estate & trust matters. Justice for Children and Youth, a legal clinic funded by Legal Aid Ontario, may provide representation to youth in relation to financial support, education, immigration and other matters. Alberta’s Children’s Legal & Educational Resource provides legal representation to youth in all civil law matters.)
  • Consider contacting provincial and territorial advocate offices. Although not mandated to provide legal representation, they may be able to assist a young person access complaint mechanisms (for example, in the child welfare context) or link the young person with other services


  • Maryellen Symons, “Children and Financial Support” in Jeffery Wilson et al., eds, Wilson on Children and the Law (LexisNexis Canada, 1994) (QL).
  • Kathryn Long, “Property and Civil Participation” in Jeffery Wilson et al., eds, Wilson on Children and the Law (LexisNexis Canada, 1994) (QL).