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Legal System | Judicial Precedent

Doctrine: Introduction

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  • based on Latin maxim stare decisis et non quieta mova (to stand by things decided)
  • meaning that a previous decision should stand
  • legal principles established in prior decisions set a precedent on specific issues
  • inferior courts are bound to follow the decisions of higher courts
  • essential aspect of English Common Law system and impacts on judicial interpretation of legislation


  • case must be decided in the same way as a prior case if material facts are sufficiently similar
  • proposition stated in one case is binding in a later case if it is a proposition of law, part of the ratio decidendi and decided in a court whose decisions are binding on the present court

Certainty and Consistency

  • precedent can be seen as a pragmatic measure, once a point of law has been argued and decided upon, no need to reassess in each instance
  • helps produce certainty and consistency
  • subtle difference: possible to have consistency without certainty but certainty requires consistency
  • certainty implies predicting an outcome, which is difficult to determine in cases as it relies on which facts a court finds to be proved by the evidence
  • certainty is further complicated by discretion given to judges at different stages, such as sentencing powers
  • absolute certainty is difficult to obtain
  • precedent helps to establish consistency
  • can result in problems, especially if the original decision is considered wrong or if attitude have developed since
  • ultimately Parliament has option to legislate in order to overcome any such problems but this is a time consuming and costly remedy

Proposition of Law

  • binding proposition must be one of law, not fact
  • if a point can be proved or inferred from the evidence then likely to be a matter of fact
  • not always straightforward to distinguish fact from a point of law
  • especially complicated in some negligence cases

    Qualcast Ltd v Haynes [1959]

    • C experienced moulder and was injured when he splashed molten metal on his foot
    • D, his employer, had provided protective footwear but did not ensure workers wore it
    • first instance judge decided he was bound by a previous decision to find that D was negligent
    • House of Lords decided whether an employer who did not ensure that workers used protective clothing was negligent was a question of fact in each case not a proposition of law
    • held D was not negligent as the risk was obvious, injury was unlikely to be serious and C was very experienced
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