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Friday, June 15, 2018



(First Published on Volume 01 Issue 02, July 2016)

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Ratio Decidendi, a term that every lawyer hunts for its clear and precise meaning. Although it is a difficult task to search for ratio of a case, but those who succeed in doing so, are supposed to have a good and in depth knowledge of a case.
Ratio Decidendi, being a Latin phrase means “Reason for a Decision”. The Black’s Law Dictionary has defined Ratio Decidendi as- A principal or a rule of law upon which a court’s decision is founded, and indeed in reality this principal or a rule of law that is being talked about in the above definition picked from the Black’s law dictionary is none other than- The rule or principal of Precedents. Referring to the term “Precedents”, it means an earlier event that sets an example or a basis upon which the judges base their future decisions. Ratio basically comprises of two things in a sequence- First being the material facts of a case and second being the subsequent decision thereon. Being the concept of Ratio Decidendi revolving around the rule and concept of precedents, the present article would, apart from the parent topic of Ratio Decidendi, would also be dealing with the concept of Precedents. On the one hand where, Ratio Decidendi, being binding upon the courts of lower and later jurisdiction through the doctrine of Stare Decisis, there is another concept called Obiter Dictum which is not binding on the courts. Obviously, not every part of the judgement would be binding on the courts, but the part which is binding is the Ratio of a case and the part which is not binding is its Obiter.
Therefore, the main aim of this very article is to establish a clear view on the topic of Obiter Dictum and that of Ratio Decidendi, and, also to deal with all other related concepts.
Material facts of a case + Decision thereon = Ratio Decidendi of a case
Non binding parts of a judgement given by the judges in a case = Obiter Dictum
Detailed Analysis of Ratio Decidendi:
As has been already stated above that Ratio Decidendi is the reason upon which the decision of a court is based. Given in the Black’s Law Dictionary, a very clear meaning of Ratio Decidendi, it says “the rule of law that a later court thinks a previous court has based its decision on”.  This means that the concept of Ratio Decidendi is very much connected with the concept of Precedents. Precedents are the rule of law, taking which, the Judges base their decision in a future case.
Having considered the extent to which the courts are bound by the previous decisions, let us now understand and examine as to what constitutes the decision of a case and what is it that is actually binding on the later courts. First we have to distinguish as to what a court decides generally as against what it decides to the parties individually. What a court decides generally or what the court states generally in a case, is its Ratio Decidendi or the rule of law for what it is an authority. Since the authority of the rule of law lies in its Ratio, and Ratio is what a court has generally stated, therefore the future cases in a court of law are judged by the things that the courts have already been stated, and these “things” are nothing but the precedents. Therefore it is now important to understand the authority of precedents and how they play an important role in the determination of Ratio of a case.

v Meaning and Authority of precedents:
Precedents, in law, is a judgement or a decision that is cited in a subsequent case or dispute as an example to justify in deciding the case that is similar to the earlier case or any other point of law in the same manner. Basically the origin of the term “Precedents” lies in the common law legal systems, where Precedents, is a principle or a rule of law established in a previous legal case and which is either binding or just has a persuasive value on the courts in deciding the case having similar issue or facts. The principle by which judges are bound by the precedents is recognised by “Doctrine of Stare Decisis” (This article would be dealing with this very doctrine at a later point of time).
Binding precedents are the precedents that must be applied or followed. According to this rule the precedents or the rules of law set by the appellate court are totally binding on the courts at a lower level. The lower courts must honour the findings of law made by the higher courts that are within the appeals path of the cases the court hears. In general, neither the decisions given by the lower courts are not binding on the higher courts in the system nor the decisions given by the higher courts are binding on the courts at a lower level that fall under a different appeals court. Further the courts must also follow their own proclamations of law on the cases and should also honour the rulings made by different courts in a matter before them concerning the parties in the same matter having the same facts and figures. Now, Binding Precedents relies on the “doctrine of Stare Decisis”, subsequent paragraphs would be dealing with this doctrine.
1.    Doctrine of Stare Decisis: Essentially, the term Stare Decisis, means- “To stand by a judicial decision”. Basically Stare Decisis is none other than a policy, which states or dictates that the court must abide by the decided cases or in other words it’s a principle that maintains that previous decisions are to be followed by the courts. According to this doctrine the decision of a higher court within the same provincial jurisdiction acts as a binding authority for the lower courts in the same territorial jurisdiction. In practical terms, this very doctrine has been described as follows:
“What the doctrine of precedents declares is that cases must be decided the same way when their material facts are the same. Obviously it does not require that all the facts should be the same. We know that in the flux of reality all of the facts cannot be the same, but the legally material facts can be the same and it with this that the doctrine is concerned”.[1] In the words of Benjamin Cardozo –“If a group of cases involve same point of law then the parties involved in some other case having the same group of material facts, would also expect the same decision that has already been given under those group of cases. To decide differently would create a feeling of resentment; it would be a breach of moral and material rights.”
Similar holdings were later seen in the case of Sweney v The Department of Highways[2] , where the court of Appeal laid down that “Liberty to decide each case as you think it right, without having any regard to the principles laid down in the previous similar cases, would only lead to uncertain laws in which no body would be aware of his rights and liabilities and he has only one option left that is to guess as to before which judge his case would be going to come and as to how the judge would be going to take the matter into consideration, without any regard to the previous decisions”. This clearly means that, Precedents definitely hold some authority without which the decisions are somewhat not adaptable to be taken. Subsequent paragraphs are going to deal with the authority that is held by the precedents in detail:
Many people, who are deeply concerned with the topic of Precedents and Ratio Decidendi like Holdsworth, seem to be somewhat confused on topic as to whether to emphasize more on the stricter sense of the term Precedents or to rely on a softer sense of this term. Holdsworth will be found to support the doctrine in the loose rather than in the stricter sense. In his words, the people who attack this doctrine, attack it in a stricter sense and never in its loose meaning. Now what this doctrine mean in a strict and loose sense, let us look at it.
Doctrine of Precedents, in a strict sense signify that what the precedents have been set by the courts in the past are needed to be strictly followed without leaving any scope for any sort of compromise herein, on the other hand, Doctrine of precedents in a loose sense signify that, what the precedents have been set by the courts in the past are important but the future courts are not totally bound to follow the same. Thus the two sides are less at a variance than they seem to be on the ground. The real issue here is, whether the doctrine of precedents should be maintained in the stricter or in a loose sense. In favour of the present practice, it is said that the practice is necessary to secure the certainty of the law, predictability of decisions being more important than the approximation of an ideal; and a very unsatisfactory decision can be reversed for the future by the statutes. What is needed, is submitted, and is the power of the judges to set aside their own mistakes. Such a power does not exist at the moment in some degree, for a High Court Judge may at a point of time, refuse to obey the ruling laid down by some other High Court Judge, only a superior court can overrule a decision given by an inferior court and any court may restrictively distinguish the obnoxious precedents. But the process of overruling is not in itself an adequate solution to the problem, for it is possible only for the superior courts and thus involves a litigant in a considerable expense.

[1] Learning the law (9th Ed. 1973) Glanville Williams
[2] [1933] O.W.N. 783 (C.A.).

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