- Ratio decidendi
"Ratio decidendi" (plural: rationes decidendi) is a Latin phrase meaning "the reason (or "ratio"nale) for the decision."
The "ratio decidendi" is::" [t] he point in a case which determines the judgment" [See
Black's Law Dictionary, page 1135 (5th ed. 1979).] or:"the principle which the case establishes." [See Barron's Law Dictionary, page 385 (2d ed. 1984).] It is a legal phrase which refers to the legal, moral, political, and social principles used by a courtto compose the rationale of a particular judgment. Unlike "obiter dicta", the "ratio decidendi" is, as a general rule, binding on courts of lower jurisdiction--through the doctrine of " stare decisis". Certain courts are able to overrule decisions of a court of co-ordinate jurisdiction--however out of interests of judicial comity they generally try to follow co-ordinate rationes.
The process of determining the "ratio decidendi" is a correctly thought through analysis of what the court actually decided – essentially, based on the legal points about which the parties in the case actually fought. All other statements about the law in the text of a court opinion – all pronouncements that do not form a part of the court’s rulings on the issues actually decided in that particular case (whether they are correct statements of law or not) -- are "obiter dicta", and are not rules for which that particular case stands.
The deft deployment of the "ratio decidendi" is one of the most powerful weapons in the
lawyer's armoury. With a proper understanding of the "ratio" of a precedent, the advocate can in effect force a lower court to come to a decision which that court may otherwise be unwilling to make, considering the facts of the case.
The search for the ratio [nale] of a case is akin to a process of
mindreading; one searches the judgment for the abstract principles of law which have led to the decision and which have been applied to the facts before the court. As an example, the "ratio" in " Donoghue v. Stevenson" would be that a person owes a duty of careto those who he can reasonably foresee will be affected by his actions.
All decisions are, in the
common lawsystem, decisions on the law as applied to the facts of the case. Academic or theoretical points of laware not usually determined. Occasionally, a court is faced with an issue of such overwhelming public importance that the court will pronounce upon it without deciding it. Such a pronouncement will not amount to a binding precedent, but is instead called an " obiter dictum".
"Ratio decidendi" also involves the holding of a particular case, thereby allowing future cases to build upon such cases by citing precedent. However, not all holdings are given equal merit; factors that can strengthen or weaken the strength of the holding include:
* Rank of the court (
Supreme Courtversus an appellate court).
* Number of issues decided in the case (multiple issues may result in so called, multi-legged holdings)
* Authority or respect of the judge(s)
* Number of concurring and dissenting judges
* New applicable
* Similarity of the environment as opposed to the age of the holding.
The ability to isolate the abstract principle of law in the vehementlyClarifyme|date=March 2008 pragmatic application of that abstraction to the facts of a case is one of the most highly prized legal skills in the common law system. The lawyer is searching for the principles which underlined and underlay the court's decision.
The difficulty in the search for the ratio becomes acute when, as is often the case in the decisions of the
Court of Appealor the House of Lords, more than one judgment is promulgated. A dissenting judgment on the point is not binding, and cannot be the ratio. However, one will sometimes find decisions in which, for example, five judges are sitting the House of Lords, all of whom purport to agree with one another but in each of whose opinions one is able to discern subtly different ratios. An example is the case of " Kay v. Lambeth LBC", on which a panel of seven of their Lordships sat, and from whose opinions emerged a number of competing ratios, some made express by their Lordships and others implicit in the decision.
Another problem may arise in older cases where the "ratio" and "obiter" are not explicitly separated, as they are today. In such a case, it may be difficult to locate the "ratio", and on occasion, the courts have been unable to do so.
Such interpretative ambiguity is inevitable in any word-bound system. Codification of the law, such as has occurred in many systems based on
Roman law, may assist to some extent in clarification of principle, but is considered by some common lawyers anathema to the robust, pragmatic and fact-bound system of English law.
* [http://www.ebc-india.com/lawyer/articles/87v4a5.htm Radio Decidendi and Common Cause v. Union of India]
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