Precedent Definition

Definition of Precedent

A precedent, in a legal context, refers to a previously decided case or legal decision that serves as an authoritative and guiding example for future cases with similar legal issues or facts. Precedents are a fundamental aspect of the common law system, where the decisions made in past cases help shape and influence the outcomes of current and future cases. Precedent is also known as “legal precedent” or “judicial precedent.”

Key elements and principles related to precedent in the common law system include:

  • Stare Decisis: The principle of stare decisis, which means “to stand by things decided,” is the foundation of precedent. It requires courts to adhere to and follow the decisions made in previous cases, especially those from higher courts within the same jurisdiction.
  • Hierarchy of Courts: Precedent operates within a hierarchical structure of courts, where decisions made by higher courts, such as appellate courts or the supreme court, are binding on lower courts within the same jurisdiction.
  • Binding Precedent: Binding precedent refers to decisions that lower courts are obligated to follow, and it is often established by decisions of higher appellate courts. Lower courts must apply the legal principles and rules set by binding precedent.
  • Persuasive Precedent: Persuasive precedent consists of decisions from other jurisdictions or lower courts that are not binding but can be used as guidance or persuasive authority in the absence of binding precedent.
  • Overruling and Distinguishing: Courts have the authority to overrule or distinguish precedents when they believe that a previous decision is no longer valid or applicable due to changes in law or circumstances.

Precedents serve several important functions within the legal system:

  • Consistency and Predictability: Precedent helps maintain consistency and predictability in legal decision-making. Parties to a case can reasonably anticipate the outcome based on established precedents.
  • Legal Guidance: Precedent provides legal professionals, including judges, lawyers, and litigants, with valuable guidance on how to interpret and apply the law to specific cases.
  • Legal Evolution: Precedent allows the law to evolve gradually as new cases are decided, helping adapt legal principles to changing societal norms and values.
  • Efficiency: Precedent saves time and resources by allowing courts to rely on established legal principles, rather than reinventing the wheel in every case.

Precedent can be categorized into two main types:

  • Vertical Precedent: Vertical precedent refers to decisions made by higher courts within the same jurisdiction that bind lower courts. For example, a decision by a state’s supreme court is binding precedent for all lower state courts.
  • Horizontal Precedent: Horizontal precedent involves decisions made by courts of the same level within the same jurisdiction. While these decisions are not binding on each other, they can be persuasive authority for similar cases.

It’s important to note that not all legal systems follow the common law tradition of precedent. Civil law systems, for example, rely less on judicial decisions and more on statutory law and codes.

In summary, precedent is a fundamental concept in the common law system, where previous legal decisions serve as authoritative examples for the resolution of current and future cases. Precedent ensures consistency, predictability, and the evolution of legal principles within the legal system.


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