Understanding Legal Precedents and Stare Decisis


The legal system is a complex entity that operates on the basis of established principles and precedents. These legal precedents form the foundation upon which the entire justice system stands, providing a guiding light for judges and lawyers alike. In this article, we will delve deeper into the concept of legal precedents and their application in the legal system, as well as explore the practice of stare decisis – the principle of standing by previous decisions.

What are Legal Precedents?

Legal precedents are previous court decisions that have set a standard for future cases with similar facts or issues. These decisions are considered to be binding and serve as a guide for judges when deciding similar cases in the future. They are derived from common law, which is a body of laws developed through judicial decisions rather than legislation.

When a court decides a case, it not only resolves the dispute at hand but also establishes a precedent that may be relied upon in future cases. This means that the reasoning and decision of that particular case become the law for all subsequent cases with similar facts. This process helps to ensure consistency and predictability in the legal system.

Importance of Legal Precedents

Understanding Legal Precedents and Stare Decisis The Foundation of Justice

Legal precedents play a crucial role in maintaining order and stability within the legal system. They provide a framework for decision-making, allowing judges to rely on past rulings and avoid creating conflicting decisions. This, in turn, ensures fairness and equality in the administration of justice.

Moreover, legal precedents also serve to protect individuals’ rights and liberties. By following established precedents, courts can prevent arbitrary interpretations of the law and uphold fundamental principles such as due process and equal protection.

Stare Decisis: Definition and Application

Understanding Legal Precedents and Stare Decisis The Foundation of Justice

The Latin phrase “stare decisis” translates to “to stand by things decided.” As mentioned earlier, it is the principle that requires courts to adhere to previous decisions when deciding similar cases. Stare decisis operates on two key pillars – vertical and horizontal.

Vertical Stare Decisis: This principle dictates that lower courts are bound to follow the decisions of higher courts within the same jurisdiction. For example, a decision made by the United States Supreme Court is binding on all lower federal courts and state courts in the country. This ensures uniformity and consistency in the application of the law.

Horizontal Stare Decisis: This applies to the principle of following precedents set by courts at the same level. In this case, a court is bound to follow its own previous rulings in similar cases unless there is a compelling reason to deviate from them. This horizontal application of stare decisis helps maintain stability and predictability within a court’s own decisions.

Criticisms of Stare Decisis

While stare decisis is an essential principle in the legal system, it has also faced criticism over the years. One of the main criticisms is that it can lead to rigidity and prevent necessary changes in the law. Some argue that blindly following past precedents can hinder progress and deny justice in particular cases.

Another criticism is that stare decisis may perpetuate outdated or discriminatory laws. As society evolves and changes, some laws may become obsolete or unjust. However, the principle of stare decisis may prevent courts from overturning these laws, even if they no longer align with societal values.

Examples of Legal Precedents in Court Cases

Legal precedents have played a significant role in shaping some of the most crucial court decisions in history. Here are a few notable examples:

  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954): In this landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine established in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). The ruling in Brown set a precedent for future decisions regarding segregation and civil rights.
  • Roe v. Wade (1973): In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized a woman’s right to have an abortion under the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision has been cited in numerous cases involving reproductive rights and remains a significant precedent in the field of constitutional law.
  • Plessy v. Ferguson (1896): While this case has since been overturned, it is still an essential precedent in the legal system. The ruling in Plessy established the “separate but equal” doctrine, which allowed for racial segregation in public facilities. It was not until the Brown v. Board of Education decision that this precedent was overturned.

Impact of Legal Precedents on the Legal System

The use of legal precedents has had a profound impact on the development and evolution of the legal system. By following established precedents, courts can create a body of consistent and predictable law, providing stability and fairness to all parties involved.

Moreover, legal precedents play a crucial role in shaping the interpretation and application of laws. As new cases arise, courts must rely on previous rulings to understand how the law should be applied. This creates a sense of cohesion within the legal system and helps prevent arbitrary decisions.

Additionally, reliance on legal precedents also reduces the workload of the courts. Without the need to start from scratch in every case, judges can refer to past decisions to guide their reasoning and decision-making process. This helps expedite the resolution of cases and ensures a more efficient justice system.


In conclusion, legal precedents are an integral part of the legal system. They provide a framework for decision-making, promote consistency and predictability, and protect individuals’ fundamental rights and liberties. Stare decisis, the principle of standing by previous decisions, serves as the bedrock of this system, guiding courts in their application of law and ensuring uniformity within the legal system. While it has faced criticism, the practice of relying on precedents remains a crucial aspect of upholding justice and fairness in society.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here