Year and a day rule

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The year and a day rule has been a common length of time for establishing differences in legal status.

The phrase "year and a day rule" is associated with the former common law standard that death could not be legally attributed to acts or omissions that occurred more than a year and a day before the death.

It is elsewhere associated with the minimum sentence for a crime to count as a felony.

The rule and homicide[edit]

In English common law, it was held that a death was conclusively presumed not to be murder (or any other homicide) if it occurred more than a year and one day since the act (or omission) that was alleged to have been its cause. The rule also applied to the offence of assisting with a suicide.[citation needed]

Certain problems with this rule arise from the advance of medicine. Life support technology can extend the interval between the murderous act and the subsequent death. Application of the year and a day rule prevented murder prosecutions, not because of the merits of the case, but because of the successful intervention of doctors in prolonging life. Additionally, advances in forensic medicine may assist the court to determine that an act was a cause of death even though it was carried out fairly far in the past.

England and Wales[edit]

The rule was abolished by the Law Reform (Year and a Day Rule) Act 1996. English law is now substantially revised such that if a specific act can be proved to be the cause of death, it can now potentially constitute murder regardless of the intervening time. The abolition of the rule does not relieve the prosecution of its obligation to prove, in cases of murder, that the accused intended to cause either death or serious injury.

The permission of the Attorney General is required for any prosecution in which it is alleged that the death occurred more than three years after the causative act, or when the offender has previously been convicted of an offence in connection with the death.

Northern Ireland[edit]

The Law Reform (Year and a Day Rule) Act 1996 which abolished the rule in England & Wales also abolished it in Northern Ireland.

New Zealand[edit]

The rule still exists in New Zealand and is codified in the Crimes Act 1961.[1]

United States[edit]

The rule's common law status has been successfully used by defendants to overturn convictions as recently as 2003: the Supreme Court of Wisconsin upheld the year and a day rule in the case before it, but simultaneously abolished the rule for any later cases, noting the modern circumstances of homicide cases, in which there is "the specter of a family's being forced to choose between terminating the use of a life-support system and allowing an accused to escape a murder charge" and the court's finding that it is "unjust to permit an assailant to escape punishment because of a convergence of modern medical advances and an archaic rule from the thirteenth century".[4]

In California, the "year and a day" rule has been changed to a "three years and a day" rule.[5] If a death occurs more than three years and one day after the act alleged to have caused it, there is "a rebuttable presumption that the killing was not criminal", but the prosecution may seek to overcome this presumption.[6]

In 2014, the D.C. rule (as it existed in 1981) was one of the reasons given for why John Hinckley could not be prosecuted for the murder of James S. Brady. The medical examiner listed the cause of death for Brady as bullets fired 34 years earlier.[2][7]

Where the rule is not applied to homicide[edit]

Jurisdictions where the rule has never applied[edit]

The following countries are listed in the Report on the Year and a Day Rule in Homicide with the observation that "the rule has never applied":[5]

  • Austria
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • Poland
  • Scotland
It should be noted that the report also said “It was held in H.M. Advocate v Stewart that the Crown may be barred from proceeding with a trial if it would be oppressive for them to do so in view of the passage of time since the discovery of the offence.".
  • South Africa

Jurisdictions where the rule has been abolished[edit]

  • England and Wales
See the main introduction above.
  • Northern Ireland
See the main introduction above.
  • Ireland
The rule was abolished “for all purposes” including "for the purposes of offences involving the death of a person, and for the purpose of determining whether a person committed suicide" by the section 38 of the Criminal Justice Act 1999.
  • Hong Kong
The Rule was abolished “for all purposes" in Hong Kong by s.33 Offences Against the Person Ordinance (added by Ordinance No.32 of 2000) following the recommendation of the Law Commission of Hong Kong; the Commission did not consider it necessary to set a time limit beyond which prosecutions required the consent of the Secretary of Justice.[8]

As a sentence for felons[edit]

A year and a day is a minimum incarceration sentence for felonies in many jurisdictions, and is one of the main features distinguishing felonies from misdemeanors. For some crimes, this is the minimum penalty, as traditionally in English-speaking, common law countries, misdemeanors may not entail a sentence of more than a year (hence, "eleven months and twenty-nine days") whereas felonies are traditionally punished by incarceration of over one year, hence "a year and a day." Furthermore, in many jurisdictions, prisoners are eligible for parole only if their sentences are longer than a year; by imposing a sentence of a year and a day, judges can offer defendants a chance at parole.[citation needed] In the United States federal system, only sentences of more than one year allow prisoners to obtain early release for good time while incarcerated. [9] As a result, a sentence of a year and a day can lead to less time served than a sentence of a year.


  1. ^ "Crimes Act 1961 No 43, part 8, sec. 162". New Zealand. 2009-12-09. Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  2. ^ a b c d Eugene Volokh (January 2, 2015). "Hinckley won’t face murder charge in death of James Brady, prosecutors say". Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-01-03. 
  3. ^ United States v. Jackson, 520 A.2d 1211, 1213 (D.C. App. 1987) (“We also conclude that abrogation of the common law year and a day rule is overdue and properly accomplished by judicial opinion, and leave it to the legislature to determine if a time limitation on death should exist in the District of Columbia other than the limitations arising from the requirements of due process of law and of proof beyond a reasonable doubt of causation.”).
  4. ^ State v. Picotte, 2003 Wisc. 42, ¶ 35 (2003). Summarized in "Supreme Court Digest: Homicide - Year-and-a-Day Rule Abrogated". Wisconsin Lawyer (Madison, Wisconsin: State Bar of Wisconsin) 76 (7). July 2003. 
  5. ^ a b Report on the Year and a Day Rule in Homicide, The Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong, June 1997.
  6. ^ California Penal Code, Section 194.
  7. ^ Wofford, Taylor (August 9, 2014). "Will John Hinckley Jr. Face Murder Charges for the 'Delayed Death' of James Brady?". Newsweek. Retrieved February 28, 2015. 
  8. ^ Criminal Law in Hong Kong [Michael Jackson, pub. Hong Kong University Press 2003]
  9. ^ 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(1),

External links[edit]