Possession 9/10ths of Law?

Since I was a little kid,I’ve always heard people quote that possession is 9/10ths of the law (usually from big kids who didn’t want to give me my stuff back). Is there really any legal basis to this? If so, exactly what does this mean?

Thanks in advance to all!

I believe that the expression originally meant that the laws dealing with possession of property make up 9/10 of all the laws in existence. It doesn’t really mean that if you’re in possession of something, it’s more yours than someone else’s.

Legally, possession alone is clearly not 9/10 of the law. There might be certain circumstances under which the use of property, over many year’s time, conveys de facto ownership, but the rules are complicated. It is not a simple case of “if I have it now, it’s mine, all mine.”

I can only think of two places where it would have any impact at all.

  1. A dispute over ownership with no clear records and

  2. An easement, which is the legal right to use someone else’s property. An easement can be presumed to exist where, for example, a neighbor put a fence up that was 6-inches over the property line, and you never objected, but years later you demand that the neighbor take out the fence and put it on his side of the line. A court could find that, after so many years of not objecting to the neighbor’s using your property, you had in effect given permission.

But that’s about all I can come up with. I’m sure a real lawyer might have some better citations.

[Lionel Hutz] In welcoming cegan523 to the boards, I’d like to refer to Finders vs. Keepers[/Lionel Hutz]

Hope this helps (from the Encyclopaedia Britannica).

As the cite mentions, under Roman law possession really made a difference. I.e. If it was on your land you owned it…period.

The expression really wss that possession is nine points of the law, and this has been misconstrued to read nine-tenths of the law. Under the Common Law, there were 9 points concerning possession. It has nothing to do with 9/10.

I thought is was supposed to be “possession is nine points of the law.” I’m not sure exactly what it means, though.

I should have previewed. Sorry.

Your “parents” have already debated this::smiley:


There seems to be something wrong: from the first post, it looks as if it’s only part of the thread and, secondly, everyone of the posters is registered as “guest”. Sorry, that’s about the best I could do. One thing I’ve learned is: “Don’t fight with the machine!”

I’m pretty sure the correct phrasing is “Possession is the whole nine yards of the law.”

Well, maybe not.

Well, my Black’s Law Dictionary lists it as “Possession in nine-tenths of the law” and, of that phrase, says:

More of a construction than a definition, really, but I think it’s accurate. In other words, the initial presumption about who owns a piece of property is that the person occupying the lamd owns it. To rebut this presumption, you must prove the validity of your own ownership (i.e., by producing your title). It is not enough to attack the ownership of the possessor, since his right to the property (or lack thereof) doesn’t have anything to do with your right to the property, and since you are only entitled to dispossess him (kick him off) if you can prove you are the owner. (This is waaaay over-broad, as there are instances when a non-owner might challenge the occupancy of land, like if you had squatters move in next door who set up a still. But in general, see above.)

I don’t think that property laws make up nine-tenths of the law, or ever have. Besides, in that case the adage would be something like “property is nine-tenths of the law.” And I’ve never heard it as “nine points of the law,” so I have no idea what that might reference.

Kunilou is correct that the use of the phrase is mostly historical. In midieval England, for example, when titles to property where by no means settled (especially in the wake of the Norman Invasion), people apparently rousted each other off of contested property with some frequency. (I base this conclusion on a book I just finished about the “Paston Letters” – letters of a wealthy midieval English family. The Pastons spent quite a bit of time trying to legally establish title to various properties, and in kicking people off (or being kicked off) of disputed lands.)

In the U.S., the adage was commonly invoked over disputed mining claims in the nineteenth century – especially in the early days of the gold and silver rushes. Now, however, there’s probably a title – and a title history – for virtually every piece of property in the States, so the saying is pretty worthless. But my state still has a similar law on the books that provides that possession conveys a presumption of ownership that can only be overcome by proof of legal title. So possession may still be ‘nine-tenths’ of the law, but it’s that other tenth that’ll kill you.

I’ve always heard it “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Not “nine points”. The whole “nine-points” argument sounds like a “whole nine yards” or “break a leg” answer.

I’ve always taken it similar to “Might makes right.” It doesn’t matter what’s right, it’s who is mean/big/tough/armed enough to enforce their view. Similarly, “I have it, so it must me mine.”

Of course, that’s completely unfounded, too.

I thought it was a reference to demons.


welcome back!!

Thanks. :slight_smile:

I know what Black says, but we were told by a real ppty professor that it is nine points of the law, and there were 9 points in the law under the common law wherein possession was a factor.

Now, I don’t know if he was correct or if Black is correct. I suppose you can say that Black is more authoritative, but even authority can be wrong. The 9 points sounds logical to me.

I saw once on Wheel of Fortune:

Clue: Phrase

Answer: “Possesion is nine points of the law”

I pretty much believe anything that Vanna White reveals to me. YMMV.

It may sound logical, but to quote Holmes J. (or paraphrase - can’t find a cite, other than my erratic memory): “The life of the common law is not logic, it is experience.”

The common law isn’t an organised system, like the civilian codes. It’s an accumulation of statutes and judicial decisions. It doesn’t have “points” or lists of principles - you extract its meaning from the statutes and the cases.

As a teaching aid, some professor may have set out certain principles of the common law in point form. There are also highly influential texts such as Blackstone and the Restatement, but these are not the common law itself.

You extract common law rules or points from the cases and statutes, just as you do our law, which is based on statutes and cases. I don’t think there any rules in our law either, as such, but rules have been expounded based on the cases. These rules from cases are stare decisis and become precedent, until the court or the legislature changes them. The fact that there were no written points set out in a common law treatise, as such, doesn’t mean there weren’t any.

Anyway, I adhere to the “points” theory, and I’m sticking with it until someone can prove otherwise.