Holding v. Dictum

Fundamentals of Procedural Law by Adam J. McKee

In legal terminology, a “holding” refers to the court’s decision or ruling in a case. It is the part of the court’s opinion that addresses the issue presented to the court and determines the outcome of the case. The holding sets a legal precedent that lower courts within the same jurisdiction must follow.

The Concept of Dictum

On the other hand, a “dictum” (or obiter dictum) refers to statements or comments made by the court during the course of its opinion that are not directly related to the issues being decided. These statements may be opinions, explanations, or observations that go beyond the scope of the case. Unlike holdings, dicta do not set legal precedents and are not binding on future courts, although they can still be influential in shaping the law.

Holding vs. Dictum: A Comparison

In Terms of Precedential Value

The main distinction between holding and dictum lies in their precedential value. While a holding is a binding precedent that future courts must adhere to, a dictum is considered persuasive authority at best, offering guidance but not establishing binding rules.

In Terms of Scope

A holding pertains to the essential legal issues in the case, while a dictum covers ancillary points. Dicta often provide useful insights into a judge’s reasoning or views on a legal issue, but they don’t have the force of law that a holding does.

Why Dictum is Not Binding Authority

In the legal system, the principle of binding authority, or mandatory authority, is central. It dictates that lower courts within the same jurisdiction must follow the decisions (or “holdings”) of higher courts. This principle of stare decisis—meaning “to stand by things decided”—ensures consistency and predictability in the law.

However, dictum (or obiter dictum) does not have the same binding force as a holding. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, a dictum comprises statements, observations, or commentary made by a judge that are not necessary for deciding the case at hand. These can be insights into the judge’s reasoning, discussions of hypothetical situations, or opinions on related legal issues. As they don’t pertain directly to the key legal issues in the dispute, they don’t form part of the court’s actual decision or holding.

Secondly, because dicta aren’t essential to the court’s decision, they’re often not as carefully considered or scrutinized as the holding. Judges focus their attention on resolving the issues necessary to decide the case. Additional comments or observations may lack the same depth of analysis and deliberation that characterizes the holding.

Finally, dicta do not go through the same adversarial process as holdings. In a court case, both sides present arguments and counterarguments, allowing the judge to consider different perspectives before making a decision. Dicta, however, often discusses issues that the parties haven’t fully argued.

For these reasons, while dicta can influence legal thought and may be considered persuasive authority, they do not constitute binding precedent in the way that holdings do. They provide guidance, but courts are not obligated to follow them.


In the realm of law, understanding the difference between “holding” and “dictum” is vital. A holding represents the court’s decision on a case, addressing the key legal issues and determining the outcome. As a part of the principle of stare decisis, it sets a binding precedent that lower courts within the same jurisdiction must follow.

Dictum, or obiter dictum, on the other hand, includes any statements, opinions, or observations that are not central to the resolution of the case. Though they may provide insights into a judge’s reasoning or viewpoints on a legal issue, they are not as rigorously scrutinized or argued as holdings and thus do not form part of the court’s actual decision.

The main distinction between holding and dictum lies in their precedential value. A holding establishes a mandatory, binding rule, whereas dictum offers guidance, shaping legal thought without creating an obligation for future courts to follow.

Grasping the distinction between holding and dictum is key for accurately interpreting court opinions and understanding how they influence the law. It’s an integral part of learning to navigate the complex legal landscape.

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File Created:  08/07/2018

Last Modified:  07/10/2023

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