Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Financial, Idioms, Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.


A court decision that is cited as an example or analogy to resolve similar questions of law in later cases.

The Anglo-American common-law tradition is built on the doctrine of Stare Decisis ("stand by decided matters"), which directs a court to look to past decisions for guidance on how to decide a case before it. This means that the legal rules applied to a prior case with facts similar to those of the case now before a court should be applied to resolve the legal dispute.

The use of precedent has been justified as providing predictability, stability, fairness, and efficiency in the law. Reliance upon precedent contributes predictability to the law because it provides notice of what a person's rights and obligations are in particular circumstances. A person contemplating an action has the ability to know beforehand the legal outcome. It also means that lawyers can give legal advice to clients based on settled rules of law.

The use of precedent also stabilizes the law. Society can expect the law, which organizes social relationships in terms of rights and obligations, to remain relatively stable and coherent through the use of precedent. The need is great in society to rely on legal rules, even if persons disagree with particular ones. Justice louis d. brandeis emphasized the importance of this when he wrote, "Stare decisis is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right" (Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 52 S. Ct. 443, 76 L. Ed. 815 [1932]).

Reliance upon precedent also promotes the expectation that the law is just. The idea that like cases should be treated alike is anchored in the assumption that one person is the legal equal of any other. Thus, persons in similar situations should not be treated differently except for legally relevant and clearly justifiable reasons. Precedent promotes judicial restraint and limits a judge's ability to determine the outcome of a case in a way that he or she might choose if there were no precedent. This function of precedent gives it its moral force.

Precedent also enhances efficiency. Reliance on the accumulation of legal rules helps guide judges in their resolution of legal disputes. If judges had to begin the law anew in each case, they would add more time to the adjudicative process and would duplicate their efforts.

The use of precedent has resulted in the publication of law reports that contain case decisions. Lawyers and judges conduct legal research in these reports seeking precedents. They try to determine whether the facts of the present case precisely match previous cases. If so, the application of legal precedent may be clear. If, however, the facts are not exact, prior cases may be distinguished and their precedents discounted.

Though the application of precedent may appear to be mechanical, a simple means of matching facts and rules, it is a more subjective process. Legal rules, embodied in precedents, are generalizations that accentuate the importance of certain facts and discount or ignore others. The application of precedent relies on reasoning by analogy. Analogies can be neither correct nor incorrect but only more or less persuasive. Reasonable persons may come to different yet defensible conclusions about what rule should prevail.

The judicial system maintains great fidelity to the application of precedents. There are times, however, when a court has no precedents to rely on. In these "cases of first impression," a court may have to draw analogies to other areas of the law to justify its decision. Once decided, this decision becomes precedential.

Appellate courts typically create precedent. The U.S. Supreme Court's main function is to settle conflicts over legal rules and to issue decisions that either reaffirm or create precedent. Despite the Supreme Court's reliance on precedent, it will depart from its prior decisions when either historical conditions change or the philosophy of the court undergoes a major shift. The most famous reversal of precedent is brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), in which the Supreme Court repudiated the "separate but equal" doctrine of plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256 (1896). This doctrine had legitimated racial Segregation for almost sixty years but finally gave way in Brown, when a unanimous court ruled that separate but equal was a denial of Equal Protection of the laws.


Case Law; Court Opinion.


1) n. a prior reported opinion of an appeals court which establishes the legal rule (authority) in the future on the same legal question decided in the prior judgment. Thus, "the rule in Fishbeck v. Gladfelter is precedent for the issue before the court in this case." The doctrine that a lower court must follow a precedent is called stare decisis (star-ay dee-sigh-sis). 2) adj. before, as in the term "condition precedent," which is a situation which must exist before a party to a contract has to perform. (See: stare decisis)


noun archetype, authoritative decision, authoritative example, authoritative principle of law, authorrtative rule, authority, basis, criterion, example, exemplum, foundation, frame of reference, guide, judicial antecedent, justification, maxim, model, model instance, point of commarison, preceding instance, precept, precursor, predecessor, prior instance, rule, rule for future determinations, rule for future guidance, standard
Associated concepts: collateral estoppel, condition preceeent, controlling authority, precedent sub silentio, res judiiata, stare decisis
See also: aforesaid, antecedent, authority, before mentioned, code, criterion, custom, documentation, finding, forerunner, holding, judgment, last, law, mode, model, pattern, preceding, precursor, precursory, preparatory, prescription, previous, prior, prototype, standard, stare decisis


previously decided case. One practical aspect of justice is that like cases be treated alike; lawyers consult the reports of previously decided court cases. How a particular system uses precedent is another matter. Continental systems such as the French and German allow that a series of cases interpreting the code will carry great weight. In the Anglo-American system the rules are far stricter, with courts being bound to follow previous decisions. These rules are often considered under the doctrine of STARE DECISIS.
References in periodicals archive ?
22) Following deeply rooted nonoriginalist precedents is justified, they say, because when departing from the original public meaning would wreak havoc, following precedent yields better consequences than following the original meaning.
Other originalists, by contrast, have concluded that a principled originalist cannot follow nonoriginalist precedent.
Claims that lower courts increasingly treat higher court rulings as binding precedent are largely impressionistic and not specifically focused on the behavior of lower courts.
When there are conflicting precedents, they cite and follow the precedent that they think is more closely related to the case at hand and ignore the other.
Judges have a great deal of discretion over which binding precedent to cite and significant leeway in determining how to justify their decisions and how to tailor their written opinions.
Part IV discusses the implications of our findings--specifically, the practical relevance of precedent for the development of the common law.
It is impossible to provide a complete account of precedential scope without adopting, either overtly or implicitly, a specific vision of the function of precedent and the nature of the judicial role.
Perspectives on the scope of precedent are thus intertwined with deeper principles of interpretation and adjudication.
1998), or time their IPO entry when the degree of fit between their social capital and the norm has been confirmed by precedent IPOs (Alti, 2005).
Thus, firms that avoid deviation from the precedent set by their industry peers convey a signal of acceptable quality within the IPO process (Oliver, 1991).
The most frequently repeated definition of social visibility in the Second Circuit's case law is therefore one that diverges subtly but significantly from the Second Circuit's reported precedent.
It is easy to imagine how copy-paste precedent arises.