Ratio decidendi and Obiter Dictum
Just suppose a decision has been given by a superior court. Will that whole decision be binding on the lower court? No, only the reasoning part of the decision will have binding value. That reasoning part of the decision is called Ratio decidendi and is binding on the lower court whereas that part of decisions which do not have any binding value but have only persuasive value is called Obiter Dictum.
What is Precedent?
According to ‘Oxford Dictionary’ Precedent means “a previous instance or case which is, or may be taken as an example of rule for subsequent cases, or by which some similar act or circumstances may be supported or justified.” In general sense precedent refers to some set patterns which act as a guiding principle for future conduct.
They are very helpful in tackling cases which have similar facts or circumstances. It is a great tool to maintain uniformity and equality in entire justice system. The most important thing is that it gives a universal sense of justice as cases which have similar facts and circumstances will be treated in a similar way.
There are two types of precedent:
- Original Precedent: Those precedents which establishes a new rule or principle.
- Declaratory Precedent: These are those precedents which are just an application of previous set precedent.
There are two different parts in Precedents i.e. Ratio decidendi and Obiter Dictum.
Ratio decidendi is a Latin phrase which means reason for decision. In simple words it is a motivation behind any legal decision. In certain cases questions are to be answered on principles are further inferred by abstracting the material facts of the case and removing the immaterial ones. At last there are principles which come out; these principles are general in nature it means that they are not only applicable in particular case but also applicable in other cases too, which are similar to the decided case and has certain common elements. This general principle is known as Ratio decidendi. It is the Ratio decidendi which has the binding effect when quoted as precedent. As the facts cannot be similar in two cases, observations made by the judges cannot be binding as a precedent. But the reasons which led the judge to arrive in a decision are binding in further cases i.e. Ratio decidendi.
In a very famous case of B Shama Rao v. Union Territory of Pondicherry, it was stated that any decision of the court is binding as a precedent not because of the final order of the decision but on the reasons and principles(general) used in that decision. Here the ratio of the decision comes from various sources such as interpretation of statute, common law principles and principle of natural justice. There are situations where multiple judges decide a case; here the ratio given by majority of the judges will have binding effect as far as precedents are concerned.
The determination of Ratio decidendi is not easy in practice as it seems in theories. Many jurists have laid down their own principles and methods to determine Ratio decidendi in a decision. But a fully fledged principles and methods are still lacking. The very task of the judges while giving a decision is to identify the ratio. Ratio decidendi can be pointed out by separating the material facts from the immaterial ones. The other way is by completely narrowing down the precedent which could be applicable in determining the case. There are two kinds of ratio which are:
- Descriptive Ratio: These are original ratio which helped the court to arrive at a decision. They are used as an aid in future cases.
- Prescriptive Ratio: This prescriptive ratio is the way in which the descriptive ratio is used in future cases. As cases differ in a facts or law. Here descriptive ratio is slightly changed in order to apply in a given set of facts and situations.
Obiter Dictum is a Latin term which means ‘by the way’ or ‘said in passing’. Obiter Dictum can be defined as Judge’s expression of opinion uttered in court or in written judgment but are not essential to the decision. In simple words, issues which are answered on the basis of given situation or circumstances and there is no need of determining general principle is called Obiter Dictum. This is not an important part of the judgment to arrive at a decision but is in use to define the circumstances of the case. They don’t have any binding value but have persuasive value. Supreme Court in Arun Kumar Agarwal v State of Madhya Pradesh said that Obiter Dictum is nothing but a mere observation or remark made by the court while deciding the issue before it. They are observations not relevant or essential. The court further said that Obiter Dictum did not have any authoritative value.
Obiter Dictum is not subject to any judicial decision. Statement constituting Obiter Dictum is not binding under the doctrine of Stare decisis. It has persuasive value, which is very strong in some jurisdiction such as England and Wales.
Justice Bhagwati in ADM Jabalpur v. Shukle said, “It must be remembered that when we are considering the observations of the high judicial authority like this court, the greatest possible care must be taken to relate the observations of a judge to the precise issues before him and to confine such observations, even though expressed in broad terms, in the general compass of the question before him unless he makes it clear he intended his remarks to have wider ambit.”
Precedents are the very important part of any legal system and are filled with several merits in them. They help the judges to go back and have reference from previous decisions. With the doctrine of Stare Decisis these precedents are binding on the Courts. It has been made very clear that only ratio part the decision is binding under this doctrine.
Now it can be easily concluded that including obiter dictum is an opinion which is not necessary to the judgment, it is just an observation made by the judge during the entire case. It is not necessary to the decision and hence don’t have any binding value. It is the Ratio decidendi which has binding value as far as precedent are concerned.
Author: Dheeraj Diwakar,
Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University, Lucknow 1st year