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Legal Precedent Meaning

What is a Precedent?

Precedent is a legal principle, created by a court decision, which provides an  authority for judges deciding similar issues later. Decisions of higher courts (such as Appellate Courts & Supreme Counts) are mandatory precedents on lower courts within that jurisdiction. That means the legal principle announced by a higher court must be followed in later cases.

Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court (the highest court in the country) are generally binding on all other courts in the U.S.

Decisions of lower courts are not binding on higher courts, although from time to time a higher court (e.g., an 9th Circuit  Court) will adopt the reasoning and conclusion of a lower court. Decisions by courts of the same level (usually appellate courts) are considered persuasive authority. In other words, they should be carefully considered by the different court but need not be followed.

Facts About Precedents

As a practical matter, courts can usually find precedent for a direction they want to go in deciding a particular case. Accordingly, precedent is used often to justify a particular outcome in a case. The body of judicial decisions includes the points used to formulate and decide a case in a court of law.

A previously decided case is considered binding in the court where it was issued and in all lower courts in the same jurisdiction. Precedents are used when a court decision in an earlier case has similar facts and laws to a dispute currently before a court. Precedent will ordinarily govern the decision of a later similar case unless a party can show that it was wrongly decided or that it differed in some significant way.

A precedent can be used in a decision of courts of justice when exactly in point with a case before the court is generally held. They have binding authority, as well to keep the scale of justice even and steady because the law, in that case, has been solemnly declared and determined.

Making a Precedent valid

To render precedents valid, they must: be founded in reason and justice, have been made upon the argument, and be the solemn decision of the court, and there must be a current decision to give them a binding effect.

Usefulness of a Precedents

Precedents can only be useful when they show that the case has been decided upon a certain principle and ought not to be binding when contrary to such a principle. If a precedent is to be followed because it is a precedent, even when decided against an established rule of law, there can be no possible correction of abuses because the fact of their existence renders them above the law. It is always safe to rely on principles.


This blog does not constitute legal advice and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact a lawyer directly.