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Stare decisis

The doctrine of judicial precedent is based on stare decisis. That is the standing by of previous decisions. Once a point of law has been decided in a particular case, that law must be applied in all future cases containing the same material facts.

For example in the case of Donoghue v Stevenson[1932] AC 562, (Case summary). The House of Lords held that a manufacturer owed a duty of care to the ultimate consumer of the product. This set a binding precedent which was followed in Grant v Austalian Knitting Mills [1936] AC 85 (Case summary). Also in Shaw v DPP [1962] AC 220 (Case summary) the House of Lords held that a crime of conspiracy to corrupt public morals existed. This was followed in Knuller v DPP [1973] AC 435 (Case summary).

In order for the doctrine of judicial precedent to work, it is necessary to be able to determine what a point of law is. In the course of delivering a judgment, the judge will set out their reasons for reaching a decision. The reasons which are necessary for them to reach their decision amount to the ratio decidendi of the case. The ratio decidendi forms the legal principle which is a binding precedent meaning it must be followed in future cases containing the same material facts. It is important to separate the ratio decidendi from the obiter dicta.

The obiter dicta is things stated in the course of a judgment which are not necessary for the decision. For example in R v Howe & Bannister [1987] 2 WLR 568 Case summary the House of Lords held that the defence of duress was not available to murder. This was the ratio decidendi of the case. The House of Lords went on to consider whether the defnce should be available to those who attempt murder and stated obiter dicta that the defence of duress should not be available to attempted murder.

In addition to binding precedents, there exists persuasive precedents. These consist of judicial statements which are not binding but may be taken into...
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