“Time immemorial.” That’s the term we use to describe anything that has been around for so long that no one knows when it started. It is older than human memory. It refers to how long we have had the practice of greeting each other by shaking hands. It describes the amount of time since the dog became man’s best friend. It is the rough approximation of when that plastic container with the strangely-colored fuzz first appeared in the refrigerator.
Then there is the legal definition of “time immemorial.” It is quite a bit more specific than the common usage. As far as the law is concerned, human memory began on Thursday, July 6, 1189.
To understand how such a specific date was assigned to this term, we have to look back to the 13th century and the reign of King Edward I. The king undertook several important reforms of the legal system through three directives known as the Statutes of Westminster. It was the first significant attempt to codify all of England’s laws in writing.
The first of the statutes was drawn up in 1275. It provided the definitions of many important legal concepts — many of which continue to this day. It provided definitions for such terms as “Acts of God” and “slander.” It also spelled out certain elements of electoral freedom.
Clause 39 of the statute addressed what is today known as “statutes of limitation.” It put an expiration date on legal challenges for various claims. Officially titled “The Limitation of Prescription Act,” it dealt with the important issue of how long someone could wait before it was too late to mount a legal challenge to the ownership of real estate. It declared, “No one is to be given a hearing to claim seisin [the feudal ownership of land] by any ancestor of his further back than the time of King Richard, uncle of King Henry, the father of the present king.”
To say it another way, if you could prove that you and your ancestors maintained ownership of your land since before Richard I took the throne, no one could challenge your ownership in court. The date Richard I ascended to the throne was Thursday, July 6, 1189. That became the date, before which anything that occurred was deemed to be beyond living memory. As lawyers would say, it was from “time immemorial.”
This definition remained in force in England for real estate purposes until 1832. By this point, it became a bit cumbersome to have to prove ownership for something over a span of 643 years. For that reason, William IV authorized the Prescription Act, shortening the statute of limitations for property challenges to anything from 20 to 60 years, depending on the type of property.
“Time immemorial” has come to be used in much broader terms, without a lot of thought to its origins. From a legal perspective, the Statutes of Westminster continue to intone that all human memory started in 1189 on the first Thursday in July.
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