You are on page 1of 5

What does ratio Decidendi and Obiter Dictum mean? 1.reason for the decison 2.

things said 'by the way' eg the ratio decidendi was 'the man was stealing because he intentionally deprived the owner of his property' the obiter is 'if he had done this unintentionally, it would not be theft' REMEMBER! THE RATIO IS BINDING, THE OBITER IS NOT!

The dictionary meaning of this Latin expression, is therule of law on which a judicial decision is made, or reason for deciding. Every decision has 3 basic postulates iv. Findings of facts both direct and inferential v. Statement of principles applicable to the legal problems as disclosed by facts vi. Judgement based on the combined effect of the above. To consider the ratio decidendi of a case, the SC has to ascertain the principle upon which it was decided. This is sometimes difficult in cases where divergent views are expressed by different judges, but eventually the final decision is taken. A decision is binding not because of its conclusion, but in regard to its ratio and the principle laid down therein. General statements made beyond the ratio decidendi have mere persuasive value only. This was held in (1996) 6 SCC 44. A case is only an authority for what it decides, and not from what logically follows from it held n AIR 1967 SC 1073 Although the decidendi can be applied to similar cases on basis of fact and law, the SC has said that care must be taken to ensure that it is not applied mechanically.
OBITER DICTA Obiter dicta is a judges expression of opinion uttered in court, or while giving judgement, but not essential to the decision and not part of the ratio decidendi. It also means an incidental remark, or something said in passing. Normally, even an obiter dictum is expected to be obeyed and followed. The obiter dicta of the SC are entitled to considerable weight AIR 1995 SC 1729, AIR 1959 SC 814.

However, the weight accorded to dicta varies with the type of dictum. Mere casual expressions carry no weight at all. Not every passing expression of a judge, no matter how eminent cannot be treated as a having the weight of authority. In some cases, the obiter dicta of the court will have mere recommendatory effect, and the government or parties to the case are not bound by them. In India, it has been held by the Bombay HC, that the obiter dicta of the PC were binding on all courts in India, on the ground that if the highest court of appeal had applied its mind and decided a question, judicial discipline required that the decision should be followed 56 Bom L.R.1156. In England obiter dicta are not binding on any court Halsbury, Vol 22, p. 797. DOCTRINE OF STARE DECISIS The dictionary meaning of this phrase is the legal principle of determining points in litigation according to precedent The doctrine of stare decisis is invoked when the reversal of a decision, followed for a considerable length of time, is likely to seriously embarrass those who had, relying upon its particular interpretation of a statute, would find themselves frustrated by a different interpretation. The court should as far as possible stick to the doctrine of stare decisis. One of the chief reasons is that a matter that has once been fully argued and decided should not be allowed to be reopened. However, this is not a universal command. If the rule were to be followed blindly, it would stunt change, and the growth of society. Where public interest is invoked, and where the question is one of constitutional construction, the doctrine may be departed from AIR 1953 SC 252. The important principles in reconsidering the decisions of the SC were set out in the Bengal Immunity case AIR 1955 SC 661. The SC said there is nothing to prevent the SC from departing from a previous decision if it is convinced of its error and its baneful effect on the general interst of the public. However, this power of review must be exercised with due care and caution and only for advancing public well-being. IMPORTANCE OF DISSENTING JUDGEMENTS The importance of dissenting judgements was discussed in detail in the English case of Smith v. Central Asbestos Co. Ltd (1973) AC 518 (also called the Dodds case), and later in the case of In Re Harper v. NCB (1974) 2 WLR 775. In the Dodds case, Lord Denning stated that We can only rely upon the reasoning which the majority relied upon to deliver the judgment. We cannot use the reasoning of the minority, because it must be wrong, as they have come to the wrong judgment. The reason behind this is that, a dissenting judgment valuable and important, though it may cannot count as part of the ratio, for it played no part in the courts reaching

their decision. This opinion of Lord Denning as been greatly criticised. In this context R.Cross defines the ratio decidendi of a case as any rule of law considered necessary by the judge for the decision of the case: it is that part of decision which has binding effectand the facts of the case play a large part in its identification.Hence, all other statements of law are obiter dicta. Now, the word necessary is used in the sense of essential to the working of a judicial system. Goodhart said that the rules for finding the ratio or principle may be summed up as follows: 1. The principle of a case is not found in the reasons given in the opinion. 2. The principle is not found in the rule of law set forth as the opinion. 3. The principle is not necessarily found by a consideration of all the ascertainable facts of the case,and the judge's decision. 4. The principle of the case is found by taking account (a)facts treated by judge as material (b)his decision as based on them. 5.In finding the principle it is also necessary to establish what facts were held to be immaterial by the judge for the principle may depend as much on exclusion as it does on inclusion. Example: Now cases may differ according as they contain a single opinion or several opinion. The determination of the ratio decidendi become easier if there only a single opinion or all the opinion are in agreement. In case the several judgements agree in the result but differ in the material facts on which they are based the principle is limited to the sum of all the facts considered material by the various judges. Thus a case involves facts A,B and C and the defendant is held liable. The first judge finds that fact A is the only material fact,the second that B is material, the third that C os material. The principle of the case is therefore that on the material facts A,B and C the defendant is liable. However, 2 or 3 judges had agreed that fact A was the only material one and that the others were immaterial, then the case would be a precedent ome on this point, though the 3 judge had held that the facts B and C were material ones. WHAT IS RATIO DECIDENDI The Latin phrase ratio decidendi, often translated as the reason for the decision, is used in the legal community to refer to the rationale behind a court decision. Every case has a ratio decidendi, a basis which the court used for ruling in the way that it did. Sometimes it is evident and at other times a court may need to explain it, as when a court is setting a precedent and thus cannot rely on previously established rationales which formed the basis for other legal decisions. When looking at a court decision, the ratio decidendi stands out as the legal grounds upon which the decision is meant to stand. It is legally binding, unlike comments made in relation to the case which may be relevant or interesting, but are not compelling from a legal stance. A passing comment of this nature is known as an orbiter dicta. If a court case is challenged, the challenger must be able to identify the ratio decidendi and show the way in which it is erroneous.

Steps 1.Understand precedent. Precedent refers to something that has happened or that was done in the past, and that serves as a model for future conduct. In the case of the ratio decidendi, the precedent set is the principle or reasoning that has been established in a single case that serves as an example or rule to be followed in subsequent cases. 2.Understand stare decisis. Stare decisis translates to "to stand by the matter". This means that certainty in the law requires that principles of law laid down in earlier cases should be followed (as a general principle), provided the material facts are the same. 3.Understand the ratio decidendi in terms of precedent. Basically, it is the principle of law on which the decision of a case was based. This part of the decision is binding on lower courts or on the decision-making court itself in future cases. 4.Note that the ratio decidendi may be expressed in wide or narrow terms. A wide ratio lays down a general principle that can apply to a variety of factual situations. A narrow ratio is restricted more to the specificity of the facts in the case in which it was relied upon.

Binding precedent
Not everything in a court case sets a precedent. The contents of a case report can be divided into two categories: 1. The reason for the decision ratio decidendi The ratio decidendi of a case is not the actual decision, like guilty or the defendant is liable to pay compensation. The precedent is set by the rule of law used by the judge or judges in deciding the legal problem raised by the facts of the case. This rule, which is an abstraction from the facts of the case, is known as the ratio decidendi of the case (see Box 4).

Box 4 Example of ratio decidendi

A couple leave their dog in their car while they pop out to a shop. For a reason that cannot later be discovered, the dog gets excited and starts jumping around. There is no issue that the dog was suffering from dehydration or being overheated. The dog paws the rear glass window. It shatters and a shard of glass flies off and, unfortunately, into the eye of a passer-by, who later has to have his eye removed. Are the couple liable to pay compensation for the man's eye? The court said no. People should take care to guard against realistic possibilities. They should only be liable, the court said, if they caused others harm by doing something that could be reasonably foreseen as likely to cause harm. We are not liable if we fail to guard against fantastic possibilities that happen to occur. The accident in this case, the judges ruled, was just such a fantastic possibility. The couple therefore did not have to pay compensation. The reason for the decision in this case, the ratio decidendi, can therefore be expressed simply as: where harm was caused to a pedestrian by a dog smashing the window of the car that it was in, and where this sort of incident was unforeseeable, the defendants were not liable. 2. Obiter dictum

In a case judgment, any statement of law that is not an essential part of the ratio decidendi is, strictly speaking, superfluous. Any such statement is referred to as obiter dictum. This is Latin for a word said while travelling or along the way (obiter dicta in the plural). Although obiter dicta statements do not form part of the binding precedent, they are persuasive authority and can be taken into consideration in later cases, if the judge in the later case considers it appropriate to do so (see Box 5).

Box 5 Example of obiter dictum

In the case above about the dog and the man injured by the shard of glass, one judge said that if you knew your dog had an excitable tendency or went mad in cars, then you would be liable if it caused someone harm in a predictable way (not in the freakish broken window scenario) and would have to pay compensation. The judge did not need to rule on that in the dog-and-the-car-window case, because the couple did not have a dog with a known excitable temperament. His observations were, therefore, made by the way and thus can be referred to as an obiter dictum. In a future case involving a dog known by its owners to be excitable, a lawyer for an injured claimant could refer back to the judge's obiter dictum in the car window case and use it as persuasive but not binding authority. The division of cases into these two distinct parts is a theoretical procedure. Unfortunately, judges do not actually separate their judgments into the two clearly defined categories and it is up to the person reading the case to determine what the ratio is. This is a bit like listening to, or reading, a speech made by a politician or a sports team manager and trying to identify what the most important part of the speech was. In some cases this is no easy matter, and it may be made even more difficult in cases where there are three or five judges and where each of the judges delivers their own lengthy judgment so there is no clear single ratio. In some cases it may be difficult to ascertain precisely the ratio of the case and to distinguish the ratio from the obiter dicta.