Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Financial, Idioms, Wikipedia.
in law, a decision delivered by a court in a specific case, the opinion for which becomes a rule that is binding on all courts of the same or lower instance in deciding analogous cases. Soviet law does not recognize precedent and does not permit the decision of criminal cases by analogy, holding that the judicial decision should be based on statutory law alone.
In some countries, including Great Britain, most of the states in the United States, Canada, and Australia, legal precedent is recognized as a source of law and lies at the foundation of the entire legal system. In accordance with the prevailing doctrine in these countries, the judge who creates a legal precedent does not create a legal norm but only formulates that which follows from the common principles of law inherent in human nature. In reality the judge may always reject the application of precedent, citing some insignificant features of the particular case in order to introduce an entirely new rule. The judge also has the freedom to interpret precedent and to select from an enormous number of precedents; in other words, there is an enormous potential for judicial discretion and arbitrary legal actions. In legal writing and in practice, systems of law based on precedent are often called systems of judge-made law.
In a number of bourgeois countries, including France, the Federal Republic of Germany, and Belgium, precedent is important for deciding questions of the application of law, filling gaps in the law, and recognizing custom and commercial practices. On the basis of precedent, existing legislation is supplemented, and statutory law is interpreted.