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What Is a Legal Precedent?

Some court cases often set a milestone or an example for other court cases to follow. This is because such cases are often necessary to judge based on the circumstances rather than the actual letter of the law. When this happens, the court case is said to be a legal precedent, or a legal ruling that can be referenced or looked to.


The concept of legal precedent comes from case law, which is the past rulings or judgments of cases. The idea of a legal precedent or the meaning behind it is meant to be legally binding, unless otherwise stated by a higher court of law. A legal precedent often arises in cases of common law, wherein the law is made and interpreted by judges who evaluate cases based on the circumstances and the extent to which the law can be applied. Case law encompasses interpretations made over statutes, constitution, case decisions, or some other form of legislation.


The point of a legal precedent is to provide future cases a guide. These future cases are often similar in terms of the circumstances to the legal precedent, or the original case that has already been passed judgment on. A legal precedent provides a guide as to how to approach the case, what laws can the litigants cite, and the general behavior that must be undertaken. Stare decisis, a legal doctrine that translates to “to stand by and adhere to decisions and not to disturb what has been settled”, provides the legal groundwork for legal precedents to be recognized and followed.

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