Precedent in Law

Christine Liddell, Jessica Schubert
  • Author
    Christine Liddell

    Christine Liddell graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Mining Engineering. She has tutored English and History, as well as STEM classes, such as Statics, Calculus, and Thermodynamics.

  • Instructor
    Jessica Schubert

    Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

Learn about precedent’s definition in law and see legal precedent examples. Explore the first use of a precedent in a court case and its role in government. Updated: 01/10/2022

Table of Contents


Precedent Definition in Law

In law, precedent can be defined as a ruling that a court has already established. A precedent utilizes the cases and legal issues previously decided by a court in settling similar current legal matters. Typically, lower courts will follow the precedents set by higher courts, such as the Supreme Court or a court of appeals. Especially in the United States, precedents are heavily relied upon to ensure the consistency, predictability, and reliability of the judicial system.

Most precedents in the United States are set by the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.

Supreme Court of the United States

Stare decisis is the doctrine of precedent. Stare decisis is Latin and the translation is "to stand by things decided". The doctrine of stare decisis "promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process".

Stare decisis can be horizontal or vertical. Horizontal stare decisis is when a court adheres to its own precedent, whereas vertical stare decisis is when a court adheres to the precedent set by a higher court.

In addition to promoting fairness, stare decisis saves time and money. The court saves time by not having to reargue legal concepts that have already been decided. Money is saved by not having to reargue previously decided upon rulings, as well.

The definition of precedent in government is very similar to the legal precedent definition. In addition to rulings, the government follows precedents for a number of other matters. The first president of the US, George Washington, set many precedents that are still followed today. George Washington set the following precedents:

  • Delivering a State of the Union address to Congress directly
  • Presidential retreats. George Washington would often retreat to Mount Vernon and most modern day presidents retreat to Camp David.
  • Serving for only eight years, or two terms. This precedent was only broken by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was elected to four terms. This precedent became a law with the ratification of the twenty second amendment.

Presidents have a choice in whether or not they wish to follow the governmental precedents, such as those set by George Washington, and many choose to do so.

Legal Precedent Meaning

There are two types of precedents: binding and persuasive.

  • Binding precedents are also known as mandatory precedents and dictate that the inferior court must follow the ruling of a superior court. Material facts in a case must be similar for a precedent to be binding.
  • Persuasive precedents are when lower courts are not bound to the precedent established by a higher court. Persuasive precedents are often followed because they are compelling and can act as a good rule of thumb.

The characteristics of a precedent are that it must:

  1. Have a well-defined hierarchy of courts, so courts know which has the higher authority and ruling
  2. Adhere to stare decisis set by judges and magistrates
  3. Be thoroughly reported on so that other courts can reference and apply the precedent

History of Precedents in Law

Stare decisis is an ancient practice and it is nearly impossible to determine the first time it was put into practice. However, a historic legal precedent example is in the report of Sir George Croke, one of the justices of the courts of the king's bench in 1584. Croke wrote that a case ought to rest in peace after being adjudicated.

Legal Precedent Example

Many cases have been settled on the basis of stare decisis. Below are various recent legal precedent examples:

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey

Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey was a landmark case in the United States and perhaps the best known legal precedent example. This case was in response to the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act of 1982, which sought to restrict abortions and had four provisions which included: a woman must notify her spouse of her intent to obtain an abortion, a waiting period of 24-hours that must be observed, the parents of minors had to consent in order for them to receive an abortion, and a woman must give her informed consent before going through with the procedure.

It was argued that the Planned Parenthood vs. Casey case violated the ruling of Roe v. Wade, a famous case in 1973 which declared that laws banning abortion violated the US Constitution. The Supreme Court upheld the precedent established by Roe v. Wade and reaffirmed a woman's right to have an abortion without undue burden.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is meant by precedent in English law?

The meaning of precedent is the use of prior cases and rulings to make decisions about current cases. Judges may look to past determinations to make determinations about their current case.

What is a precedent in law example?

A precedent in law example is the case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania versus Casey. This case used the precedent set by Roe vs. Wade to make its determination.

What is a precedent in simple terms?

A precedent is when a case or legal issue has previously been decided in court. The use of precedents allows courts to be consistent, predictable, and reliable.

How is precedent used in court?

A precedent is used in court to make determinations on current cases using prior rulings. A precedent is also known as stare decisis, which is Latin for "to stand by things decided".

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