Doctrine of Precedent

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

Arising from the common law tradition is the doctrine of stare decisis, otherwise known as the doctrine of precedent.  The basic idea of this doctrine is that precedent—legal findings that came before—should be followed in future cases.  A major argument for the doctrine of precedent is the idea of fundamental fairness.  It makes sense that the law should treat people in similar circumstances equally.  Following precedent also promotes predictability; we can predict the outcome of a particular case by examining the way the courts handled factually similar cases in the past.

Because the doctrine of precedent is so important, much of legal research involves taking a set of factual circumstances and determining of a precedent exists for them.  A prior case that matches a current set of factual circumstances is known in legal circles as a case in point.  To be considered a case in point, the case most closely resembles the factual circumstances of the case at hand.  Identifying a case in point is a critical skill in legal research.  Also to finding cases in point, the competent legal researcher must also be able to determine if the case is still good law.  In other words, it must be determined if the court has altered the decision in any way, and if so, how.

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Last Modified: 07/30/2018

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