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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

Yep, The Legal Genealogist is still in Auckland, getting ready to be one of the speakers at this weekend’s 50th anniversary celebration of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists.

I’m hoping to have a chance to post some travel photos and commentary during this trip, but since internet connections — and time — may be in short supply while I’m here, and since nobody wants the blog to go silent for that long, the blog is going to have some fun with legal alphabet soup.

So, for today, B is for “BABY ACT”.

What, you say?

What are babies doing in legal definitions?

Quite a bit, actually, since the technical legal definition of “baby act” is a “plea of infancy, interposed for the purpose of defeating an action upon a contract made while the person was a minor, is vulgarly called ‘pleading the baby act.’”1

So… let’s say one of your ancestors bought a horse when he was 16 years old. By the time payment is due, a week later, the horse turns out to be a handful — more than the boy can handle. The kid wants out of the deal.

For anyone of age, the fact that the horse was highspirited would be just too bad. There’s a fairly common concept in the law called caveat emptor — let the buyer beware. In other words, the buyer has to make a reasonable investigation into what he’s buying.

Now it’s true that in the case of a hidden flaw — say the horse was actually ill and the seller hid that fact from the kid — then any buyer can often get out of the deal. But anything you should have been able to discover, no. Usually, under the law, your problem.

But not if you’re underage. Except for what are called necessaries, a minor can get out of most contracts. Now necessaries usually means “things indispensable or things proper and useful, for the sustenance of human life.”2

However, the definition continues:

This is a relative term, and its meaning will contract or expand according to the situation and social condition of the person referred to. In reference to the contracts of infants, this term is not used in its strictest sense, nor limited to that which is required to sustain life. Those things which are proper and suitable to each individual, according to his circumstances and condition in life, are necessaries, if not supplied from some other source.3

So the issue between the horse seller and the kid will be whether the horse was truly proper and suitable to that kid, depending on his specific situation.

You’ll see a lot of court cases where the baby act comes up because, Black reminds us, “By extension, the term is applied to a plea of the statute of limitations.”4

And that’s the opposite situation: the kid wants to act, in a legal sense, by filing a claim or a lawsuit or some other action, but can’t because he’s underage.

Now in most cases the law requires people to bring actions with a certain amount of time — what’s called the limitations period. If they don’t, then the action is time-barred because it wasn’t brought within the time frame of the statute of limitations.5

But if the kid couldn’t act within the time allowed, he still gets the chance once he comes of age — even if the usual amount of time has already passed. And you’ll see a lot of those cases in the court records too.

So the “baby act” really is a big deal in the law…

Day 2, 2017 alphabet soup.


  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 112, “baby act.”
  2. Ibid., 805, “necessaries.”
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 112, “baby act.”
  5. See ibid., 1122, “statute of limitations.”
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