precedent | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee


Course: Introduction / Procedural Law

In law, a precedent is a court decision in an earlier case with facts and legal issues similar to a dispute currently before a court.

Precedent is an essential principle of the legal system, as it provides a degree of certainty and consistency in judicial decision-making. The basic idea behind precedent is that when a court decides a case, its decision should serve as a guide for how similar cases should be decided in the future. This helps ensure that the law is applied in a predictable manner and that similarly situated parties are treated in a similar manner.

In the United States legal system, precedent is based on the doctrine of stare decisis, which means “to stand by things decided.” Under this doctrine, courts are generally required to follow the legal reasoning and principles established in earlier cases that have similar facts and legal issues. This means that if a court has decided a case in the past, and the legal issues and facts in a new case are similar, the court should follow the earlier decision.

However, there are limitations to the doctrine of stare decisis. A court may distinguish a previous decision if there are material differences between the facts of the previous case and the current case. A court may also overrule a previous decision if it is no longer sound or if it has been undermined by subsequent legal developments.

Precedent is important in all areas of the law, but it is especially important in common law systems, such as the United States, where the law is largely judge-made. In civil law systems, such as those found in many European countries, precedent is less important, and judges are not bound by the decisions of earlier courts to the same extent.

One of the main advantages of the precedent system is that it helps ensure consistency and predictability in the legal system. Because courts are bound by earlier decisions, parties can have some confidence that their cases will be decided based on established legal principles rather than on the whims of individual judges.

Another advantage of the precedent system is that it helps to promote the development of the law. Because judges are required to follow earlier decisions, they are forced to carefully consider the legal reasoning and principles underlying those decisions. This can lead to a gradual evolution of the law as judges refine and clarify legal principles over time.

However, there are also some disadvantages to the precedent system. One potential drawback is that it can lead to inflexibility in the law. If a court is bound by an earlier decision, it may be unable to adapt the law to changing social or technological conditions.

Another potential drawback is that precedent can be slow to develop. Because judges must wait for cases to come before them in order to make decisions, it can take years or even decades for the law to evolve in response to new developments.

Overall, the precedent system is a fundamental aspect of the legal system in the United States and other common-law countries. While it has its advantages and disadvantages, it provides a degree of certainty and consistency in the law while also allowing for the gradual development of legal principles over time.

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Last Modified: 04/09/2023


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