Precedent Meaning and Classification of Precedent

Introduction to Precedent

In England, the Common Law also known as unwritten law has been preserved in the form of decisions of the superior courts since the close of the thirteenth century. This body of case law is contained in Law Reports and has been handed down to this day. Since Royal Judges, exercising the prerogative of the Crown had previously given these decisions and these Judges were invariably jurists of unqualified learning and repute, the jurists who have given decisions were given the highest respect. The decisions were also presumed to be unfailingly correct. In that sense, they were later on followed as examples or precedents. Here we will discuss the meaning of precedent in detail as follows.

Meaning of Precedent:

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

The meaning of Precedent is as follows;

“Something has been done or said that will function as an example or rule to authorize or justify a subsequent act of the same or a similar kind”.

Stare decisis:

The binding authority of judicial precedents is based on the principle of stare decisis which means to abide by authorities and cases already adjudicated upon. The British legal system alone gives binding authority to the precedent.

Under the stare decisis rule, a principle of the law which has become settled by a series of decisions is generally binding on the courts and should be followed in similar cases.

This rule is based on expediency and public policy. Although the courts usually follow this rule, it is not applicable in altogether cases. The reason is that previous decisions should not be allowed to perpetuate a wrong if the court is convinced that the previous decision is wrong.

Authority of Precedents:

The English system has given binding authority to judicial precedents for the following reasons:

1). Justice is administered by a body of Judges.

2). The Judges being legal experts are pre-eminently fitted to lay down the law for the Bar.

3). A case once decided is presumed to be correct so long as High Court does not reverse it.

4). The rule that the law as laid down in previous cases must be followed induces confidence in the minds of the litigants.

5). Due to the existence of a rule on the point and its following in all subsequent cases, the administration of justice becomes ‘even-handed and fair’.

6). The law becomes known and certain and is not liable to have varying interpretations or applications.

Obiter dicta:

All that is said by the court by the way, i.e., statements of law which go beyond the requirements of the particular case in hand and lay down a rule which is either irrelevant or unnecessary for the decision of that case called obiter dicta.

To put it in brief, when points not directly connected with a case are discussed in judgment, these remarks constitute obiter dicta. These, when made by superior courts, are, however, binding on the subordinate courts.

For the same court, they serve merely as persuasive precedents. These dicta have the force of persuasive precedents only. The Judges are not bound to follow them. They can take benefits/guidelines from them but they are not bound to follow them.

Obiter dicta helps in the growth of law. These sometimes help the cause of the reform of the law. The Judges have to know the law and their observations are bound to carry weight with the government.

The defects in the legal system can be pointed out in the obiter dicta. The Judges are not bound to make their observations on a specific point unless that is strictly relevant to the point in issue but if they feel that they must speak out their own minds on a specific point, the general public should be grateful to them for their labour of affection.

Ratio Decidendi:

According to Salmond; “A precedent is a judicial decision which contains in itself a principle. The underlying principle that thus forms its authoritative element is often termed the ratio decidendi. The concrete decision is binding between the parties but it’s the abstract ratio decidendi which alone has the force of law as regards the world at large”.

Rupert Cross says that ratio decidendi is a rule of law expressly or impliedly treated by the Judge as a necessary step in reading his conclusion.

Classification of Precedents:

Precedents may be divided into three divisions:

i). According to the nature of the rule laid down such as Declaratory and original precedents.

ii). According to the influence exercised by them on the course of future decisions such as Authoritative and persuasive precedents.

iii). According to the nature of their authority such as Precedents of absolute authority and of conditional authority.

Declaratory and original precedents:

Declaratory precedents are those which do not lay down a replacement rule of law but only declare a principle of law already existing. Such precedents merely declare the law.

Original precedents are those which lay down a replacement rule of law. These are the outcomes of the intentional exercise by the Courts of their privilege of developing the law while sitting to administer it. Such precedents make the law.

Authoritative and persuasive precedents:

Authoritative precedents are those which must be followed whether the Judge deems the principle laid down as correct or not. Thus, the decisions of the High Court are authoritative precedents for the subordinate courts and therefore the decisions of the Supreme Court are authoritative precedents for the High Court and all other subordinate courts.

Persuasive precedents are those that the courts may or may not follow. Thus, judgements of Indian High Courts (after the partition of the sub-continent) and the Supreme Court of India or of other Foreign Courts are merely persuasive precedents for the courts in Pakistan.

Precedents of absolute authority and of conditional authority:

Precedents of absolute authority are those which are absolutely binding, however, unreasonable or erroneous they may appear to be. In this sense also, the precedents of superior courts are precedents of absolute authority for the inferior or subordinate courts.

Similarly, a decision of the Full Bench is binding on a Bench consisting of two or more Judges of equivalent and subordinate courts.

Precedents of conditional authority are those which are binding but conditionally. Thus, the decision of a Single Judge of the High Court is only a conditional authoritative precedent for a Judge of the same or another High Court.

Precedent in Law:

Precedent in law refers to the legal principle that court decisions should be guided by previous decisions made by higher courts in similar cases. This concept is based on the doctrine of stare decisis, which means “to stand by things decided.” In other words, judges must follow the legal principles established by previous court decisions, especially those made by higher courts within the same jurisdiction. This promotes consistency, fairness, and predictability in the legal system.

Precedent is an essential element of the common law legal system used in the United States. When a case is brought before a court, the judge must examine the relevant legal principles and precedents to determine how to rule on the case. If there is a previous case with similar facts and legal issues, the judge will often rely on the precedent set in that case to guide their decision-making. However, if there are no relevant precedents, the judge may have to interpret the law and create a new precedent.

It is worth noting that precedent is not an inflexible rule, and courts can deviate from it in certain circumstances. For example, if a court determines that a previous precedent is no longer applicable or that it was decided incorrectly, it may choose to depart from it. However, such departures are rare and require a compelling reason.

Overall, precedent is a fundamental aspect of the US legal system that plays a crucial role in shaping the law and ensuring consistency in the application of legal principles.

To conclude precedent is a previous legal decision which is serving as an authoritative rule in some courts and as a persuasive rule in some other courts.

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