principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on or persuasive for a court

Precedents, in common law legal systems, are legal cases establishing a principle or rule that a court or other judicial body may utilize when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts. In broader terminology, a precedent may be any past decision or resolution which may be relied upon in justifying a later decision.

If Napoleon had nuclear subs, we'd all be speaking French. ~ Mike Murphy


  • PRECEDENT, n. In Law, a previous decision, rule or practice which, in the absence of a definite statute, has whatever force and authority a Judge may choose to give it, thereby greatly simplifying his task of doing as he pleases. As there are precedents for everything, he has only to ignore those that make against his interest and accentuate those in the line of his desire. Invention of the precedent elevates the trial-at-law from the low estate of a fortuitous ordeal to the noble attitude of a dirigible arbitrament.
  • The right hon. Gentleman tells us to go back to precedents; with him a great measure is always founded on a small precedent. He traces the steam-engine always back to the tea-kettle. His precedents are generally tea-kettle precedents.
  • I am ready to concede that the rule of adherence to precedent, though it ought not to be abandoned, ought to be in some degree relaxed. I think that when a rule, after it has been duly tested by experience, has been found to be inconsistent with the sense of justice or with the social welfare, there should be less hesitation in frank avowal and full abandonment. … That court best serves the law which recognizes that the rules of law which grew up in a remote generation may, in the fullness of experience, be found to serve another generation badly, and which discards the old rule when it finds that another rule of law represents what should be according to the established and settled judgment of society.
  • What has once been settled by a precedent will not be unsettled overnight, for certainty and uniformity are gains not lightly sacrificed. Above all is this true when honest men have shaped their conduct on the faith of the pronouncement.
  • The repetition of a catchword can hold analysis in fetters for fifty years or more.
  • An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.
  • What is today supported by precedents will hereafter become a precedent.
  • Ages, precedents, have long been accumulating undirected materials,
    America brings builders, and brings its own styles.
    The immortal poets of Asia and Europe have done their work and pass'd to other spheres,
    A work remains, the work of surpassing all they have done.

The Dictionary of Legal Quotations (1904)Edit

Quotes reported in James William Norton-Kyshe, The Dictionary of Legal Quotations (1904), p. 204-208.
  • It is of dangerous consequence for Judges, in their judgments, to rely too much on precedents that perhaps went forth through the necessity of the present times.
    • Brampston, L.C.J., Hampden's Case (1637), 3 How. St. Tr. 1245.
  • I cannot bear to be told when an argument has been addressed to me by which I am not convinced, that there is a case decided which I am bound to follow.
    • Kay, J., In re Holmes (1890), L. J. (N. S.) 60C.D. 269.
  • My duty is, as a Judge, to be governed by fixed rules and former precedents.
  • He who will have advantage of precedents, ought to search for them at his peril, and for his speed, for, the Court will not search for them; for if none, or no usual precedents are shewn, the Court ought to adjudge according to law and reason.
  • If any precedent should be found, you should have time to make use of it.
  • It is dangerous to make a precedent, an innovation.
    • John Pratt, C.J., Layer's Case (1722), 16 How. St. Tr. 132.
  • It is hard, I confess, and so are many other things in the law; but I am wonderfully tender of making precedents.
    • Jefferies, L.C.J., Rosewell's Case (1684), 10 How. St. Tr. 267.
  • A course of precedents and judicial proceedings in Courts of justice make the law: it would be endless to cite cases upon it. A course of practice for a few years has been held to controul an Act of Parliament.
    • Wilmot, L.C.J., Wilkes' Case (1770), 19 How. St. Tr. 1130.
  • We must, as in all cases of tradition, trace backwards, and presume, from the usage which is remembered, that the precedent usage was the same.
    • Earl of Mansfield, Proceedings against the Dean of St. Asaph (1783), 21 How. St. Tr. 1036.
  • From authorities I come to precedents; though they be not judgments, yet they show the practice of the law: and what better book have we in the law than the book of precedents, or what is there of more authority than that, for we have not the twelve tables for our common laws? The common law is but the common usage of the land.
    • Finch, L.C.J., Hampden's Case (1637), 3 How. St. Tr. 1227.
  • Recognised precedents have the force of decisions, by which Courts and Judges individually must hold themselves bound.
    • Williams, J., Case of the Sheriff of Middlesex (1840), 3 St. Tr. (N. S.) 1256.
  • The precedents are all against you, every one of them, and what shall guide our judgments, since there is nothing alleged in this case but precedents?
    • Hyde, C.J., Proceedings on Habeas Corpus by Sir T. Darnel and others (1627), 3 How. St. Tr. 57.
  • Matters depending in our Courts are composed of an infinite number of special circumstances, and it therefore is as rare to find a precise correspondence between the facts of one case and those of another, as an exact resemblance in the face of one man to that of another. Therefore it is the wisdom of the sages of our law, by the analogy with other cases, to investigate their doubts, and thus to satisfy their judgments.
    • Per Curium (Mallet, Twitden and Terrill, JJ.), Manby v. Scott (1672), 1 Levinz, 4; 2 Sm. L. C. (8th ed.) 455.
  • I hope we shall resolve according to the reason of former times, and according to our consciences.
    • Hyde, C.J., id., p. 50.
  • What is determined upon solemn argument establishes the law, and makes a precedent for future cases : which is not the case of questions agreed by consent of parties, or never litigated.
  • I have often thought since that there is sound sense in what was once said by the late Lord C. J. Eyre, that the sooner a bad precedent was gotten rid of, the better.
    • Lord Kenyon, C.J., King v. Stone (1801), 1 East, 648 n. (a).
  • I lay great stress upon the two precedents of near a century and a half ago, and no instance in contradiction of them.
    • Lord Mansfield, Mayor of Norwich v. Berry (1766), 4 Burr. Part IV., p. 2114.
  • I think what has been considered as settled law for thirty years past ought not now to be departed from.
    • Buller, J., Doe v. Staple (1788), 2 T. R. 699.
  • Precedent indeed may serve to fix principles, which for certainty's sake are not suffered to be shaken, whatever might be the weight of the principle, independent of precedent. But precedent, though it be evidence of law, is not law in itself; much less the whole of the law.
  • Precedent goes in support of justice.
  • I should be sorry that any opinion of mine should shake the authority of an established precedent; since it is better for the subject that even faulty precedents should not be shaken than that the law should be uncertain.
    • Grose, J., Heathcote v. Crookshanks (1787), 2 T. R. 24.
  • Seldom will it happen that any one rule will exactly suit with many cases.

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