Ratio

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  • Topic: Ratio decidendi, Common law, Obiter dictum
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  • Published : December 2, 2012
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Ratio decidendi and obiter dicta

Learning objectives
At the end of this module, you will be able to:
* distinguish between ratio decidendi and obiter dicta.
* apply well-established rules to identify the ratio decidendi in a decision. This module is intended as a useful exercise in revision. If you are certain that you understand how to discover the ratio in an opinion, you should skim lightly over this material. What is the ratio decidendi?

As you probably recall from your studies, the term ratio decidendi is a Latin phrase which means the "the reason for deciding". What exactly does this mean? In simple terms, a ratio is a ruling on a point of law. However, exactly what point of law has been decided depends on the facts of the case. | The importance of material facts As Goodhart A L (1891–1978) pointed out long ago in the 1930s, the ratio is in pratical terms inseparable from the material facts. Goodhart observed that it "is by his choice of material facts that the judge creates law". By this Goodhart meant that the court's decision as to which facts are material or non-material is highly subjective, yet it is this inital decision which determines a higher or lower level of generality for the ratio. Goodhart's reformulation of the concept of the ratio was the subject of heated debate, particularly in the 1950s. Compare Goodhart's concept of the ratio with Lord Halsbury's statement that: "Every judgement must be read applicable to the particular facts proved, since the generality of the expressions which may be found there are not intended to be the expositions of the whole law but govern and are qualified by the particular facts of the case in which such expressions are to be found." Lord Halsbury (1901)What, if any, is the difference between Goodhart's material facts and Halsbury's particular facts? | What are obiter dicta?

Obiter dicta is a Latin phrase meaning "things said by the way". Obita dicta are not binding (unlike the ratio), but they may be regarded as persuasive in a future decision. The weight given to dicta usually depends on the seniority of the court and the eminence of the judge in question. Obiter dicta are judicial opinions on points of law which are not directly relevant to the case in question. They are made when a judge chooses to give some indication of how he or she would decide a case similar, but not identical, to case under consideration. These statements are often meant to clarify the legal principle which the judge proposes to apply in his or her judgement. For this reason, obiter dicta often take the form of analogies, illustrations, points of contrast or conclusions based on hypothetical situations. Obiter dicta in one case might be adopted as ratio decidendi in subsequent cases. This occurs when a situation regarded as hypothetical by one judge arises in a subsequent case. Distinguishing between ratio and obita is not always simple. When questioned regarding the difference between ratio and obiter, Lord Asquith once remarked that: "The rule is quite simple: If you agree with the other bloke you say it is part of the ratio; if you don't you say it is obiter dictum, with the implication that he is a congenial idiot". Although intended humorously, this remark has a good measure of truth. | Ratio decidendi and obiter dictaHow well do you recall the concept of the ratio decidendi from your undergraduate studies? Take a moment to read through the following statements: * A ratio decidendi is not an abstract principle, to be applied in a deductive fashion to a later case. Instead the ratio is a ruling on a point of law in relation to a specific case. * Only the ratio binds an inferior court. Cases themselves do not bind. * If the court is not required to make a ruling on a point of law, its decision will not give rise to a ratio. * There is no requirement for each judgement to contain a single ratio and no more. Multiple rationes are quite normal. * Not every...
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