The doctrine of judicial precedent is based on the principle of stare decisis which means ‘to stand by what has been decided’. It is a common law principle whereby judges are bound to follow previous decisions in cases where the material facts are sufficiently similar and the earlier decision was made in a court above the current one in the court hierarchy. This doctrine of precedent is extremely strong in English law as it ensures fairness and consistency and it highlights the importance of case law in our legal system. Black's Law Dictionary defines "precedent" as a "rule of law established for the first time by a court for a particular type of case and thereafter referred to in deciding similar cases."
For this system to operate successfully, in both criminal and civil courts, three things are required – a settled court structure, a ratio decidendi and accurate records of the decisions made by superior courts.
A settled court structure is required as judges need to know which decisions they are bound to follow. The English Court hierarchy was largely established by the Judicature Acts 1873-75. The House of Lords was made the final appeal court in 1876 under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act, in 2009 the Supreme Court became the final appeal court.
There are two court systems, criminal and civil, and they both contain various appeal routes in a vertical court structure. As the UK is a member of the EU, the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights bind all English Courts in respect to matters within their jurisdiction.
For criminal cases the Supreme Court, formally the House of Lords, is the most superior court in the hierarchy. It binds all courts lower than itself and generally follows its own past decisions.
The next court below in the hierarchy is the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division), they are bound by the past decisions of the Supreme Court/House of Lords and its own past decisions. Both Supreme Court and Court of Appeal have a way of avoiding following their own binding precedent which I will discuss later.
Below the Court of Appeal is the Queen’s Bench Divisional Court, they are bound by both Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. They are bound by their own past decisions however they can take a flexible approach in order to protect the liberty of the individual in question.
The last two courts in the hierarchy are the Crown Court and Magistrates Court. These courts are bound by the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and Queen’s Bench Divisional Court however they are not bound by their own decisions and they do not bind any other court.
The civil court hierarchy is different; the Supreme Court is still the superior court, followed by the Court of Appeal (Civil Division). The next court down the hierarchy is the Divisional Courts of The High Court, which are bound by the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, also bound by their own decisions.
The next court is the High Court, they are bound by the decisions of all three superior courts and the decisions of the High Court bind the two inferior courts which are the County Court and Magistrates Court. The inferior courts are bound by all superior courts but they are not bound by their own past decisions.
The ratio decidendi, ‘the reason for deciding’ is the legal principle which the decision of the court is based upon. It is the ratio decidendi which forms the binding precedent which must be followed in future cases of similar fact, the same court and all courts below it.
An example of a ratio decidendi is in the case of R v Howe (1987) where the House of Lords held that the plea of duress was no defence against the charge of murder; this judgement became binding precedent which must be followed by the Supreme Court and all courts below it.
It is also important to mention the obiter dictum which forms the remainder of the judgement. An obiter dictum means ‘other things said’ and these statements do not bind however...
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