Precedent: Meaning and Definition

Usually a landmark judgement that was stated or established in a decided court case becomes rule for all lower courts. When a similar case with comparable circumstances is brought before it, it is normally binding or advisory on tribunals and courts. The Government of India Act, 1935, stated that judgements issued by the Privy Council and Federal courts under the British Empire would be binding on the courts. The Indian legal system has precedents, which have assisted numerous courts in making judgements and overturning ones that were later determined to be arbitrary or thoughtless.

What is the meaning of Precedent?

Precedent refers to a court's judgement or decision that is regarded as support for the underlying legal concept. The principle that similar cases should be resolved similarly is the basis of the precedent, commonly known as stare decisis, or "stand by the judgement." After a judge applies a principle to a case, any subsequent cases involving the same circumstances must likewise be judged using that same principle. This not only ensures clarity, predictability, and uniformity in the implementation of the law, but also saves judges time and labour.

The different jurists have define precedent as follow−

  • According to Salmond, “In a loose sense, precedent just contains documented case law that may be referenced and adopted by courts." In a strict sense, such case law is required to be obeyed in addition to having significant binding power.

  • According to Grey, “Anything said or done that served as a guideline for later practise is covered by judicial precedent”.

  • According to Bentham, "Judge made laws are precedents."

  • According to Keeton, “A court decision to which authority has been partially or entirely attached is known as judicial precedent”

  • According to Austin, "Judicial’s law" refers to precedent.

Doctrine of Precedent under Indian Law

In India, the concept of precedent is well-established. The rulings of the superior courts are binding on all lower courts. Therefore, following are the position of courts to follow the Doctrine of Precedent −

Supreme Court

The apex court in the nation was established in India in January 1950 and is known as the Supreme Court. At present, it consists of 34 judges. The Chief Justice is the judge with the greatest seniority. The legislation stated by the constitution is enforceable in all courts located on Indian territory, according to article 141 of the document. The term "all court," as used in this article, certainly refers to courts other than the Supreme Court. The High Court is bound by the Supreme Court's judgement and is not permitted to disregard it on the grounds that the Supreme Court was not informed of relevant legislation and, as a result, its decision is not binding. The following points will help you better understand the supreme court of India's precedent doctrine −

  • The Supreme Court is not bound by its own prior rulings. The judgement of a bigger bench, however, binds a smaller bench.

  • The rulings of India's federal court and Privy Council are not binding on the Supreme Court. They are only effective as arguments at the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court holds them in high regard.

  • The Supreme Court is not subject to the rulings of foreign courts, such as the highest courts of the USA and the UK.

High Court

In India, there are 25 high courts serving 29 states and 7 union territories. A chief justice serves as the head of every high court. The only Union Territory with a separate High court is Delhi, which is the National Capital Territory. According to Article 141, "all courts within the territory of India shall be bound by the law declared by the Supreme Court." The phrase "law declared" refers to both the Ratio Decidendi of a decision as well as an Obiter Dictum, "provided it is upon a point raised and argued." Since the Supreme Court is the highest judicial body in the nation, even its obiter dicta must be accepted as binding.

  • The rulings of the Indian Supreme Court are fully binding on all high courts.

  • The rulings of a high court, for example, are binding on the lower courts that fall under its purview. The rulings of the Punjab and Haryana high court are binding on all district courts in those two states as well as in Chandigarh and Haryana.

  • Only decisions made by one high court are persuasive in front of other high courts and lower courts that are under the purview of other high courts.

  • The judgements of a division bench of two judges and a full bench of three judges of the same high court are binding on a single judge bench of the high court.

  • The rulings of foreign courts are not binding on the high court in India.

Subordinate Court

At the state level, India has a number of subordinate courts, including the district and session courts, the magistrate's court, the civil court, etc. The rulings of the Supreme Court are binding on these lower courts.

Forms of Precedent

The following are the forms of doctrine Precedent −

Ratio Decidendi

Ratio Decidendi literally means to "the basis for the decision." The basis for a court decision is the rule of law. That is the core of a judgement in the other world. Salmond defines Ratio Decidendi as the standard that the court uses to decide a given case. The following are the main Ratio Decidendi theories −

  • Classical Theory

  • Good Hart’s Theory

  • Salmond Theory

  • Stone’s Theory

Obiter Dicta

Obiter Dicta are the judge's supplementary observations, comments, and viewpoints on different issues. They frequently provide the court's reasoning for its decision and, while they might provide advice in future cases comparable to this one, they are not legally obligatory.

Kinds of Precedent

The following are the kinds of precedents −

Declaratory and Original Precedents

According to John William Salmon, a declaratory precedent occurs when a legal subject merely applies an already established rule.

An original precedent, on the other hand, is when a new statute is made and used in a legal situation. The development of new laws is a result of first precedents.

Persuasive Precedents

A persuasive precedent is a kind of precedent where the court will strongly consider it even though they are not obligated to follow it in a legal case. A compelling precedent is therefore seen as a historical source of law rather than a source of law today. In India, a high court's rulings can serve as compelling precedents for other high courts.

Absolutely Authoritative Precedents

Judges are obligated to adhere to the precedent's court decision in a question of law when it is an absolutely authoritative precedent. In other words, the judge is required by law to render the same ruling even if he disagrees with the precedent.

For instance, due to judicial hierarchy, every court in India is completely bound by decisions made by courts higher than it.

Conditionally Authoritative Precedents

A precedent is conditionally authoritative if it is generally unquestionably authoritative but can be discarded under specific conditions, such as a ruling by the Supreme Court. If the decision is incorrect or defies logic and the law, the court may reject it.

Advantages of Precedent

The following are the major advantages of precedent −

  • Time savings.

  • Legal certainty.

  • Meet the demands of the community.

  • Aids in people's understanding of the law.

  • Legal flexibility.

  • Practical character.

  • The evolution of law.

Disadvantages of Precedent

The following are the disadvantages of precedent −

  • A huge number

  • Litigation is necessary for the development of law

  • The law isn't complete

  • Wrong precedent could be formed

  • Overruled cases could be cited in court


Precedents are a key source of law since they save time and guarantee fairness, but a successful system must be constructed with a defined hierarchy of courts that effectively defines the courts at each level. India has adapted a common law system, but due to the abundance of subordinate courts and the volume of cases filed, it is not in full use. Create categories for the many courts that are available, identify who exactly is bound by each court's ruling, and keep a record of all precedent-setting decisions in order to guarantee that all cases are properly recorded.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is the difference between custom and precedent?

Ans. The term "precedent" refers to earlier rulings by the courts. The statutory laws passed by the legislature are referred to as the legislation. The term "custom" describes the long-standing customs of a community that have become so entrenched in society that they have the status of law.

Q2. What is precedent and its importance?

Ans. The theory of stare decisis, which means to "abide by the judgements," is where the idea of precedent first emerged. The objective of this concept is to make judicial rulings and the law more certain and consistent. The evolution of law and society depends heavily on precedent.

Q3. What is an example of a precedent in India?

Ans. In the case of Indira Gandhi v. Raj Narayan, Minerva Mills, and other cases where the facts of the case and the circumstances are consequently similar, the basic structure doctrine of the Indian Constitution, for instance, was proposed in the case of Kesavananda Bharati. This doctrine is applicable as a precedent in these cases.

Updated on: 14-Apr-2023


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