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Where’d that come from?

Time and time again, it appears in the law books and, so, in the records genealogists use.

The phrase a year and a day.

Year-daySomething had to be done within a year and a day, as for example that the owner of a shipwrecked vessel had to apply to any salvagers to get his property back within a year and a day from the time the goods were seized or the salvage belonged to the King.1

Or it was only valid if it lasted a year and a day, as when a tinner had been in possession of a tin-work for a year and a day, he had a right not to be dispossessed of the property without a court order.2

Or it only had some specific legal effect if it happened within a year and a day, as when the issue is how long after a wounding the death could occur and the crime would be considered murder — at common law, the wound had to cause death within a year and a day.3

And, yes, it is a defined term in the law dictionaries:

This period was fixed for many purposes in law. Thus, in the case of an estray, if the owner did not claim it within that time, it became the property of the lord. So the owners of wreck must claim it within a year and a day. Death must follow upon wounding within a year and a day if the wounding is to be indicted as murder. Also, a year and a day were given for prosecuting or avoiding certain legal acts; e. g., for bringing actions after entry, for making claim for avoiding a fine, etc.4

This period of time is particularly recognized in the law. For example, when a judgment is reversed, a party, notwithstanding the lapse of time mentioned in the statute of limitations pending that action, may commence a fresh action within a year and a day of such reversal; … again, after a year and a day have elapsed from the day of signing a judgment, no execution can be issued until the judgment shall have been revived by scire facias.5

So what’s with this “year and a day” thing anyway?

Why not just a year?

Why not, say, two years?

The Legal Genealogist has no real clue.

I mean, it’s perfectly reasonable to set some time frame within which things have to be done or have to happen. There has to be an end point — some fixed time — so people know what to expect. In the law, these are called limitations periods, and you’ll often see a reference to a statute of limitations: a law “prescribing limitations to the right of action on certain described causes of action; that is, declaring that no suit shall be maintained on such causes of action unless brought within a specified period after the right accrued.”6

And the time period itself is, or at least was, perfectly reasonable when it was originally fixed hundreds of years ago. When the common law was developing, for example, medical science was in its infancy and being sure that a death was due to this wound and not that illness was practically impossible after some time had passed. So the year-and-a-day murder rule was followed, though it’s largely been abolished today when cause of death is so much easier to determine.7

But why a year and a day?

One modern legal dictionary says the term meant “from any date until the same date in the following year, e.g. from January 1 to January 1 of the following year” and “arose because a year from January 1 would traditionally run through December 31, not January 1.”8 That’s not very helpful, really.

In one non-legal dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary, it says that it’s “a period fixed by law to ensure the completion of a full year.”9 That’s not much better.

The closest I can come to a real explanation is this one: “The time span of a year and a day … makes it clear that the time is precise; ‘a year’ is sometimes used to mean approximately a year, but a year and a day makes it clear that the exact time is indicated.”10

And that, you will find, appears in an utterly unexpected source, a wiki called TV Tropes. A website that describes itself as “a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction,” and where tropes are described as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.”11

Is it right? I dunno. But it makes perfect sense to me. A common understanding, of a common law concept, understood well enough that we can reasonably rely on it.

And as a working theory, I’m going with it.


SOURCES

  1. See Charles Petersdorff, A Practical and Elementary Abridgment … and … Treatise on … the Common Law, 15 vols. (New York: W.R.H. Treadway & Gold & Hanks, 1832), 15:356; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 29 July 2015).
  2. J. Tregoning, The Laws of the Stannaries of Cornwall… (London: p.p., 1808), 45; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 29 July 2015).
  3. See Nathan Dane, A General Abridgment and Digest of American Law, 8 vols. (Boston: Cummings, Hilliard & Co., 1824), 7:121; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 29 July 2015).
  4. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1251, “Year and Day.”
  5. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America and of the Several States of the American Union, rev. 6th ed. (1856); HTML reprint, The Constitution Society (http://www.constitution.org/bouv/bouvier.htm : accessed 29 July 2015), “Year and Day.”
  6. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 1122, “statute of limitations.”
  7. See generally the discussion of the rule and its abolition in Rogers v. Tennessee, 532 U.S. 451 (2001), where the Supreme Court upheld Tennessee’s retroactive abolition of the rule.
  8. Wex, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School (http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex : accessed 30 July 2015), “Year and a day.”
  9. Collins English Dictionary (http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english : accessed 30 July 2015), “year and a day.”
  10. TV Tropes Wiki (http://tvtropes.org/), “Year and a day,” rev. 26 June 2015.
  11. Home Page, TV Tropes (http://tvtropes.org/ : accessed 30 July 2015).
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