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Quarters Days, Leap Years & Other Trifles of Time

Property solicitor John Priddle explains the origins of quarter days in the property calendar and the challenges of leap years for landlords and tenants. 

This is generally regarded as a relatively quiet period of the farming year.  Traditionally, certainly in the North of England, completions of farm sales were often scheduled for the Scottish quarter day Candlemas i.e. the 2nd February, for that reason.

I have seen it suggested that Candlemas represented the first day of Spring, although experience of Scottish winters, climate change or not, suggests a large element of wishful thinking.  Equally dubious meteorologically is an old rhyme as follows:

If Candlemas Day be dry and fair
half the winter’s to come and mair
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul
half o’ winter’s gane at Yule

In the Scottish calendar Candlemas is followed by Whitsunday.  Almost inevitably that has no direct relevance either to the Christian festival of Whitsun, or to any Sunday.  Whitsunday is fixed for these purposes on 15th May.

Whitsunday is then followed quite shortly by Lammas, on the 1st August.  Lammas is a festival apparently to celebrate the wheat harvest, when it was customary to bring a loaf made from the new crop to church.  It must have been of general significance through the British Isles, in that in Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare, not known for his Scottish connections, speaking of Juliet indicates that “come Lammas – Eve at night shall she be fourteen”.  Clearly Shakespeare, very much a man of the South and Midlands, was aware of the significance of Lammas – clearly also in more modern times Romeo would at the least have been the subject of serious enquiries from Social Services; it must be doubtful whether Juliet should have been allowed onto that balcony at her age without a vest (there is no reference to one in the text, but it can be chilly at night in Italy) and a full risk assessment of the balcony.  If only proper precautions had been taken, things might have turned out more happily.

The last of the Scottish quarter days is Martinmas, which is on the 11th November, a date of far greater poignancy for other reasons for the last ninety years.

In England things are managed differently, as are the English quarter days. Originally they were four dates in each year on which servants were hired, and on which rents and taxes were due.  They are still of great significance in terms of rent collection – ordinarily commercial and many other rents are payable “quarterly in advance on the usual quarter days”.  Hence the recent activity and administrations prior to a quarter’s rent in advance being due from various retailers this Christmas Day, the most easily remembered of the four dates.

The first English quarter day of the calendar year is Lady Day, on the 25th March, followed by Midsummer Day on the 24th June and Michaelmas on the 29th September.  As far as Lady Day is concerned there is one particular curiosity, which helps to explain why our tax year starts on the 6th April, which on the face of it seems to be a random date and entirely illogical.  The reason is that when in 1752 we switched from the Gregorian calendar to the Julian calendar (so that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 was followed by Thursday 14th September 1752) with the loss of 11 days, then Lady Day (traditionally the first day of the British year) moved back 11 days to the 25th March.  The start of the tax year did not change, hence it starts on 6th April.

With the exception of Christmas Day there is an easy way to remember the English quarter days, given that they are all on the twenty something of March, June and September.  By one of those strange coincidences the second digit of each actual date is equivalent to the number of letters in the name of that month hence 25th March, 24th June, 29th September.  Why and how that is I cannot start to think, other than to speculate that the odds against it must be enormous.

Regardless of the description of quarter days as such, a moment’s mental arithmetic proves that no year, even a Leap Year, can be divided by four into an equal number of days.  The intervals are quite varied: for example there are 97 days between Midsummer Day and Michaelmas, and only 87 between Michaelmas and Christmas Day.  That can have some significance.  There is some effect on cashflow if, on say an annual rent of £250,000, a quarter’s rent is payable a few days sooner or later depending on the particular quarter days.  An imbalance can also arise on apportionments, again especially where large rents are involved. If a rented property is sold the rent has to be adjusted between buyer and seller.  Generally speaking in those cases the rent is apportioned on annual basis (albeit even in a Leap Year on the basis of 365 days) to achieve some fairness and parity between the parties, but that is something that needs to be taken into account and specified.  A day’s difference will be worth having when a large rent is involved.

On the subject of Leap Years I always struggled with physics at School, and the finer (and for that matter the coarser) elements of time, space, electricity and so on remain a complete blank to me.  I have never understood how, if we need an extra day squeezed in every four years, there is not somehow a six hour disparity every year between Leap Years.  I am sure there is a logical explanation; please don’t waste your time trying to explain it to me.

Another point about a Leap Year is that a tenant paying an annual rent in effect gets a free day, in the same way that, subject to the method of payment of wages or salary, an employer will get an extra day’s work from his employees, who will work for nothing that day.  Maybe that goes some way towards making up for those duvet days in and around the depths of Candlemas.

So much for time, other than that in the fullness of it, other musings might appear on other legal quirks, not least our old friends the roods, rods, poles and perches, chains and furlongs.   And while we are at it, what does a baker call twelve?

John Priddle is a solicitor, and former partner, in the commercial property team of Burnetts. 

About the author

Published: Friday 17th February 2012
Categorised: Agribusiness, Corporate Law, Commercial Property

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