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Legal precedent facts for kids

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In common law legal systems, a precedent or authority is a legal case that establishes a principle or rule. This principle or rule is then used by the court or other judicial bodies use when deciding later cases with similar issues or facts. The use of precedent provides predictability, stability, fairness, and efficiency in the law. The Latin term stare decisis is the doctrine of legal precedent.

The precedent on an issue is the collective body of judicially announced principles that a court should consider when interpreting the law. When a precedent establishes an important legal principle, or represents new or changed law on a particular issue, that precedent is often known as a landmark decision.

Precedent is central to legal analysis and rulings in countries that follow common law like the United Kingdom and Canada (except Quebec). In some systems precedent is not binding but is taken into account by the courts.

Types of precedent

Binding precedent

Precedent that must be applied or followed is known as binding precedent (alternately mandatory precedent, mandatory or binding authority, etc.). Under the doctrine of stare decisis, a lower court must honor findings of law made by a higher court that is within the appeals path of cases the court hears. In the United States state and federal courts, jurisdiction is often divided geographically among local trial courts, several of which fall under the territory of a regional appeals court, and all regional courts fall under a supreme court. By definition decisions of lower courts are not binding on each other or any courts higher in the system, nor are appeals court decisions binding on each other or on local courts that fall under a different appeals court. Further, courts must follow their own proclamations of law made earlier on other cases, and honor rulings made by other courts in disputes among the parties before them pertaining to the same pattern of facts or events, unless they have a strong reason to change these rulings.

One law professor has described mandatory precedent as follows:

Given a determination as to the governing jurisdiction, a court is "bound" to follow a precedent of that jurisdiction only if it is directly in point. In the strongest sense, "directly in point" means that: (1) the question resolved in the precedent case is the same as the question to be resolved in the pending case, (2) resolution of that question was necessary to disposition of the precedent case; (3) the significant facts of the precedent case are also present in the pending case, and (4) no additional facts appear in the pending case that might be treated as significant.

In extraordinary circumstances a higher court may overturn or overrule mandatory precedent, but will often attempt to distinguish the precedent before overturning it, thereby limiting the scope of the precedent in any event.

Precedent is not "binding" on a judge or “mandatory” in the same sense that laws are binding on citizens. A judge can't be jailed or fined for disagreeing with it. His oath is not to precedent, but at least for federal judges, is to "the constitution and the laws of the United States". The Canons of Judicial Ethics do not mention obedience to precedent, but to "the federal Constitution and that of the state whose laws they administer." The Code of Judicial Conduct says nothing about precedent. In most cases, precedent is the most reasonable interpretation of the Constitution and our laws, in which cases the oath to the constitution is most faithfully observed by following precedent. But when a judge finds the interpretation of the Constitution in a majority opinion unpersuasive, compared to the interpretation in the dissent, then following precedent may violate the judge's oath. In a ruling where Judge Roy Moore saw such a distinction, he acknowledged its authority as precedent, but said "[The] interpretation of the Constitution [by the Supreme Court majority] is their interpretation. But nothing can conflict with a sworn officer's oath to the Constitution." Of course chaos is the consequence of careless disregard of precedent. Citizens trying to obey the law need a sense of what the law is.

Non-binding / Persuasive precedent

Precedent that is not mandatory but which is useful or relevant is known as persuasive precedent (or persuasive authority or advisory precedent). Persuasive precedent includes cases decided by lower courts, by peer or higher courts from other geographic jurisdictions, cases made in other parallel systems (for example, military courts, administrative courts, indigenous/tribal courts, State courts versus Federal courts in the United States), and in some exceptional circumstances, cases of other nations, treaties, world judicial bodies, etc.

In a case of first impression, courts often rely on persuasive precedent from courts in other jurisdictions that have previously dealt with similar issues. Persuasive precedent may become binding through the adoption of the persuasive precedent by a higher court.


Long-held custom, which has traditionally been recognized by courts and judges, is the first kind of precedent. Custom can be so deeply entrenched in the society at large that it gains the force of law. There need never have been a specific case decided on the same or similar issues in order for a court to take notice of customary or traditional precedent in its deliberations.

Case law

The other type of precedent is case law. In common law systems this type of precedent is granted more or less weight in the deliberations of a court according to a number of factors. Most important is whether the precedent is "on point," that is, does it deal with a circumstance identical or very similar to the circumstance in the instant case? Second, when and where was the precedent decided? A recent decision in the same jurisdiction as the instant case will be given great weight. Next in descending order would be recent precedent in jurisdictions whose law is the same as local law. Least weight would be given to precedent that stems from dissimilar circumstances, older cases that have since been contradicted, or cases in jurisdictions that have dissimilar law.

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