The doctrine of
precedent refers to previous decisions made by judges that can be used to help
them decide on cases that are similar. The English system of precedent is based
on the principle stare decisis, which means to stand
by what has been decided. It can be broken down into two parts, ratio decidendi
and obiter dicta. Ratio decidendi are the principles of law that a judge has
used to come to the decision at the end of a case. Ratio decidendi loosely
means “Any rule expressed or implied by the judge as a necessary step in
reaching his conclusion”. Obiter dicta refers to “the other things
said” by the judges and does not necessarily have to be followed by judges
in future cases.1 The most basic and
important principle upon which the doctrine of judicial precedent lies is that
a hierarchy of courts is needed if it is to function.

            The Court of Appeal is
the highest court within the Senior Courts of England and Wales, and deals only
with appeals from other courts or tribunals. The decision of the Court of
Appeal is binding for High Court and other lower courts but not for the Supreme
Court. The Court of Appeal need not to follow the previous binding precedent on
three circumstances. Firstly, when the previous decision conflict, the Court of
Appeal must decide which has to follow and which has to reject (Law v Jones)2. Secondly, where
previous decision conflict with Supreme Court (Street v Moundford)3. Thirdly, when the
previous decision was given carelessly or recklessly (Rickards v Rickards)4. There is no
difference on the application of stare decisis as between the civil and
criminal division of the Court of Appeal.

            The doctrine of
judicial precedent primarily assists Courts when making decisions via
previously decided case law. This gives the assurance of a quicker judicial
process and the reliability and regularity within the judicial system. In
similar cases there will be a more decisiveness and they will be treated with
more impartiality, which prevents any injustice from occurring. This sets the
standard as legal rules and principles can be developed which in turn creates a
more flexible judicial system. It also sets the precedence for lower courts. However,
there are several disadvantages that exist under the doctrine, such as the
unwarranted limitations that basically force judges to adhere to previous
decisions. This could hinder progression of the law as society evolves as many
of the principles may be somewhat outdated. Furthermore, due to the number of
cases that exist, it may become exceedingly demanding and time consuming to
fully understand the law. Since the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted, the
doctrine of judicial precedent powers have dwindled, however with the increase
in new case laws, the doctrine will in fact be reinstituted. This is of utmost
importance given the significance of judicial precedence and although there are
many disadvantages, these appear to be outweighed by the advantages.

doctrine of precedence is of utmost importance especially in the Court of
Appeal as it sets the tone for the judicial system and can only be overridden
by the Supreme Court. It is also the most respected frequented court and its decisions
stand in lower courts, as such it is bound by its decisions.

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S. Wilson, H. Rutherford, A. Storey, and N. Wortley. English Legal System 2nd
ed. (Oxford University Press, 2016.)

2 1974 Ch 112

1985 2 WLR 877 House of Lords

1989 3 WLR 748 Court of Appeal


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