Stare decisis and Precedent value of a Judgment
Stare decisis is a Latin phrase which means “to stand by decided cases”. Stare decisis embodies an important social policy of certainty and continuity.
The Apex court emphasized upon the need for courts to follow the principles of stare decisis. The Apex court in the case of Govt of AP versus A P Jaiswal observed – consistency is the cornerstone in the administration of justice. The doctrine of binding precedent has the merit of promoting certainty and consistency in judicial decisions and enables organic development of law, besides providing assurance to the individuals as to the consequence of transaction forming part of his daily affairs. (2001) 1 SCC 748.
The practice of following precedents enables citizens to plan their conduct in the expectation that past decisions will be honoured in the future.
The clearest pronouncement of the Supreme Court on the subject of precedent is the Bengal immunity case wherein it unanimously ruled that in constitutional matters SC would not consider itself bound by the orthodox doctrine of precedent. Consequently it was held in that case that Article 141 of the Constitution of India cannot be interpreted in the narrow sense so as to make decision of the SC binding upon itself.
In order to understand and appreciate the binding force of a decision, it is always necessary to see what were the facts in the case in which the decision was given and what was the point which had to be decided.
There appears to be some controversy as to what is meant in legal parlance when it is said that a case is binding. In B Shama Rao versus UT of Pondocherry, AIR 1967 SC 1480 at page 1487, Justice Shelat observed that a decision is binding not because of its conclusion but in regard to its ratio and the principles laid down therein.
In order to have a correct perception of the ratio decidendi of a case, it is necessary to have a close look at the structure of the judgment itself. It is not everything said by a judge has the force of a precedent.
Ratio decidendi of a case is the principle of law that decided the dispute in the facts of the case.
In Sanjay Singh versus U P Public Service Commission – (2007) 3 SCC 720 – the SC held that broadly speaking every judgment of a Superior court has three segments namely -
The facts and the point at issue;
The reason for the decision;
A decision should be read with reference to and in the context of the particular statutory provisions interpreted by the court – MCGB versus BPCL – (2002) 4 SCC 219.
If we clearly follow the reasoning of Lord Denning M R in Harper versus National Coal Board – a classic case on the subject of ratio decidendi. Where there is no unanimity among the judges on the question of law making it difficult to ascertain which of them really expounds a course of legal reasoning. He observed – We can only accept a line of reasoning which supports the actual decision of the House of Lords. The second proposition is that if we can discover the reasoning on which the majority based their decision.
The burden of stare decisis doctrine is that a judge in a later case is bound by the ratio decidendi of the earlier decision. The distinction between ratio and obiter is undoubtedly of great importance. If the court thinks that an issue does not arise, than any observation made with regard to such an issue would be purely obiter dictum.
In U P Gram Panchayat Adhikari Sangh versus Dayaram Saroj – the SC held that judicial discipline is self discipline. Judicial discipline demands that when the decision of a coordinate bench of the same HC is brought to the notice of the Bench, it is to be respected and binding, subject of course, to the right to take a different view or to doubt the correctness of the decision and the permissible course then open is to refer the question or the case to a larger bench. This is the minimum discipline and decorum to be maintained by judicial fraternity. (2007) 2 SCC 138.
If a HC judge is referred to a relevant decision of the SC, the strict doctrine of precedent would oblige him to ascertain the ratio decidendi and apply it to the operative facts on hand.
Keeping in view judicial discipline and propriety, if two judge bench finds a judgment of three judge bench to be so incorrect in cannot be followed in any circumstances, the proper course would be to refer the matter before it to another bench of three judges. Pradip Chandra Parija versus Pramod Chandra Patnaik – (2002) 1 SCC 1.
A judgment of the HC which refuses to follow the decision and direction of the SC, is a nullity. Director of Settlements, AP versus M R Apparao; UOI versus Kantilal H pandya – (1995) 3 SCC 17; (2002) 4 SCC 638.
In the case of Dr Dinesh Kumar versus Motilal Nehru Medical college (1990) 4 SCC 627 – the SC said – the directions of the SC are not intended to be brushed aside and overlooked or ignored. Meticulous compliance is the only way to respond to directions of this court.
Vineet Narain case: in the absence of appropriate legislations and executive orders, in matters of public importance and urgency, the SC can issue orders and directions to fill the gap for enforcement of the fundamental rights and doing complete justice in the cause. (1998) 1 SCC 226.
Judicial directions cannot be annulled by an Act.
S S Bola versus B D Sardana – (1997) 8 SCC 522
PUCL versus UOI – (2003) 4 SCC 399
M C Mehta versus UOI – (2002) 4 SCC 356
Privy council decisions are binding on the HC as long as the SC does not overrule them – Pandurang Kalu Patil versus State of Maharashra (2002) 2 SCC 490.
Fraught with judicial affirmations, the HC judges are sometimes called upon to undertake what at times proves to be impossible or illusory task of ascertaining the ratio decidendi of SC decisions in order to be bound by them. Though as a matter of strict legal theory, a HC judge is obliged to adopt and apply ratio decidendi of a precedent decision, in actual practice the things are not so simple. The authority may overlap, or even conflict with another of equal weight.
In Haryana financial corp versus Jagdamba Oil Mills, the Hon’ble SC held that courts should not place reliance on the decision without discussing as to how the situation fits in with the factual situation. (2002) 3 SCC 496 : AIR 2002 SC 834.
In Sumtibai versus Paras Finance Co – (2007) 10 SCC 82 – the SC held that “what is of the essence in a decision is its ratio and not every observation found therein nor what logically follows from the various observations made in it.
In the case of Girnar Traders versus State of Maharashtra – (2007) 7 SCC 555 – the SC further held that only the ratio decidendi can act as the binding or authoritative precedent and reliance placed on mere general observations or casual expressions of the court is not of much avail.
An isolated sentence in a judgment cannot be regarded as a full exposition of law. A decision cannot be relied upon in support of a proposition that it did not decide.
Landmark decisions on judicial exposition of law –
Gregg versus Georgia – 49L Ed 2d 859.
Coker versus Georgia
Director of Public prosecutions versus Lynch
Same principle of law may apply differently in different cases involving different sets of facts. Rumana Begum versus Govt of AP – (1992) CrLJ 3512 at p.3517 (AP)(DB).
A judgment is always on its own peculiar facts.
It is a basic principle of administration of justice that all like cases should be decided alike. Otherwise, on same set of facts, brought forth by different persons may result in different orders. Sun Exports Corporation versus CC – (1997) 93 ELT 641 (SC).
Courts are not obliged to follow decisions given per incuriam, decided in ignorance of law.
The decision is erroneous as being contrary to statute or to a previous higher judicial authority or is founded on wrong principles. London Transport Executive versus Betts – (1959) AC 213.
A precedent passed sub silento – where the point of law was decided without argument, without reference to crucial words of the rule and without any citation of authority. Gerard versus Worth Peris Ltd – (1936) 2 All ER 905 (CP).
It is inconsistent with an earlier decision of a higher court or an early decision of a larger bench of the same court. Young versus Bristol Aeroplane Co. Ltd –  KB 729 CA :  2 ALL ER 293.
A precedent is a source of law.
Both the High courts and the SC may refuse to follow their own previous decisions at least be constituting a larger bench,
Precedents – there cannot be blind reliance on precedents – AIR 2011 SC 2731 – Paras 12, 13.
Judicial discipline – following precedents set by Division Bench – by subsequent Benches – (2011) 12 SCC 615 – Para 23.
Citing case law – proper mode – (2010) 13 SCC 255
Precedents – disposal of cases by blindly placing reliance on precedents – not proper – AIR 2011 SC 1989 – Para 59.
Judgment Per Inquarium – explained – AIR 2011 SC 1989 – Para 61.