He who is first in time has the strongest claim in law.
This maxim relates to property, and is used in determining the rights of parties thereto. Generally, it may be said to apply to the first occupant of land, or the first possessor of a chattel lost or abandoned ; to the heir who takes by descent ; the inventor of something new, etc. Its particular application in practice, however, is with respect to real property, between legal and equitable claims of several incumbrancers and purchasers, as to who has the prior right and consequently the better title. Section 48 of the Transfer of Property Act, 1882 embodies this principle.
The maxim is also well illustrated by all those cases in which one creditor, by using diligence, obtains a satisfaction of his claim in priority to another of equal right ; a simple instance of which is, where two writs of fi. fa.1) are delivered to the sheriff, the one first delivered must be first satisfied.
The law is said to prefer a sure and constant right, though it be little, to a great estate by wrong, and defeasible ; and therefore the first and more ancient is the more sure and worthy title : “ Quod prius est verus est ; et, quod prius est tempore potius est jure.”
The law of descents, whereby the eldest amongst males of equal degrees of consanguinity, as being first in time and more worthy, are preferred to the younger, is regulated by this maxim. So is the law of escheat ; as, where the owner of land dies intestate and without heir, such land vests either in the Crown or in the lord by escheat ; and so as to undisposed of personal property, the intestate leaving no next-of-kin, which vests in the Crown. For, all estates being supposed to have been granted by the lord paramount, in the absence of title in any other claimant, the property vests in the lord paramount as in his first estate.
The equitable rule as to the priority of incumbrancers upon real or personal property may be properly referred to as illustrating the maxim under consideration. As, where there have been several assignments of a reversionary interest in the same stock, the one first in point of time and notice will be entitled to the fund. So where there are several mortgagees of one estate, and the legal estate outstanding, the first in point of time is to be preferred ; but where one of them has the legal estate, he is preferred. Where, therefore, there are three mortgagees of one estate, the first having the legal estate, and the third in point of time pays off the first, and thereby acquires the legal estate ; he obtains priority for both first and third mortgagees over the second ; for, where the equities are equal the law will prevail.
A simple instance, of daily occurrence in similar cases, may be used in further illustration of this rule : Plaintiff found on the floor of the defendant's shop a small parcel containing bank notes, which he handed to the defendant, requesting him to keep them with a view to finding the owner. The defendant accordingly advertised for the owner ; but, none appearing, after a lapse of three years plaintiff demanded the notes back upon paying defendant the costs of advertisements and giving him an indemnity ; and the defendant having refused : it was held that the plaintiff was entitled to have them handed over to him, and this notwithstanding they were found in defendant's shop. For, the finder of a chattel, though thereby he does not acquire the absolute ownership of the thing found, does, nevertheless, acquire a right thereto as against all but the owner.