A week ago, Associate Justice Verity McWilliam of the ACT Supreme Court pondered a real-life law exam problem:
The plaintiff in these proceedings was born in a leap year, on 29 February 2000. She has been charged with committing certain criminal offences on 28 February 2018, being a common year (or non-leap year). The question on this judicial review application is whether, at the time she allegedly committed those offences, she was 17 and therefore a child at law, or 18 and therefore an adult.
To find that the plaintiff committed her alleged offences when she was (just) a child, McWilliam AJ distinguished not just The Pirates of Penzance but also a High Court judgment. In 1961, a majority of the High Court held that alleged car accident victim Charles John Prowse’s ‘coming… of full age’ occurred at the start of the day before his 21st birthday, citing a strange common law rule. As Dixon CJ explained:
In the anonymous case mentioned in argument in Nichols v. Ramsel the question was in a devise whether the testator was of age or not. The report says “and the evidence was that he was born on the first day of January in the afternoon of that day and died in the morning of the last day of December: and it was held by all the judges that he was of full age; for there shall be no fraction of a day”.
The result was that Prowse, who sued for negligence on the day before his 27th birthday, found his case (just) barred by a six-year statute of limitations that started after his majority.
Justice Windeyer’s judgment in Prowse commenced:
In measuring lapse of time the common law eschews metaphysics. Nevertheless some nice questions have arisen for the courts. In one of the first references to the topic, Dyer’s note of Thomas Somerset’s Case in 1562, it is said “ceo fuit un narrow pinche in le case”. There have been narrow pinches since then.