Ratio decidendi and Obiter dicta

The part of a case that is said to possess authority is the ratio decidendi, i.e., the rule of law upon which the decision is founded. What the doctrine of precedent declares is that cases must be decided the same way when their material facts are the same. Thus ratio decidendi of a case can be defined as the material facts of the case plus the decision thereon. It is the principle of law laid down in a case which is of application to subsequent cases and states the law for all parties.

To find law out of the long pronouncements of a judge is very difficult process. However, every statement made in a judicial decision is not an authoritative source to be followed in a later case presenting a similar situation. Only those statements in an earlier decision which may be said to constitute the ratio decidendi of that case are held to be binding, as a matter of general principal in subsequent cases.

How to find the ratio decidendi of a case? Finding the ratio decidendi of a case is an important part of the training of a lawyer. It is not a mechanical process but is an art that one gradually acquires through practice and study. Suppose in a certain case facts A, B and C exist and the court finds that facts B and C are material and fact A immaterial, and then reaches conclusion X i.e. judgment. Then the doctrine of precedent enables us to say that in any future case in which facts B and C exist, or in which facts A and B and C exist, the conclusion must be X. If in a future case A, B, C and D exist, and fact D be held to be material, the first case will not be direct authority, though it may be of value as an analogy.

What facts are legally material? That depends on the particular case, but take as an illustration a “running down” action, i.c., an action for injuries sustained through the defendant’s negligent driving of a vehicle. The fact that the plaintiff had brown hair, that his name was Vipin, and that the accident happened on a Friday are immaterial, for the rule of law upon which the decision proceeds will apply equally to persons who do not possess these characteristics and to accidents that happen on other days. On the other hand, the fact that the defendant drove negligently, and the fact that in consequence he injured the plaintiff are material and a decision in the plaintiffs favour on such facts will be an authority for the proposition that a person is liable for causing damage through the negligent driving of” a vehicle.

Principles/methods to find Ratio

The discovery of the ratio of a case may be a matter of great difficulty because a case may have been decided on its own facts, or the particular terms of its pleadings or on the basis of some admission or concession, and may yield no ratio or general principle at all. Or the later court may find itself unable to discover the basis on which the previous court decided the precedent case, this greatly weakens the value of the case as a precedent.

The judgment in a precedent must, moreover, be read secundum subjectam materiem; it is a judgment in relation to the facts of a particular case and the judge may not be laying down a rule for any case other than the one before him and precisely similar cases. If he does lay down a rule for kinds of cases other than that before him, the validity of the propositions for other cases must be considered if and when those other cases arise, when the rule may be regarded as too widely and generally stated.

Some of the principles or methods to ascertain the ratio of a case are as follows:

(1) Classical or abstraction method – The ascertainment of the ratio decidendi of a case depends upon a process of abstraction from the totality of facts that occurred in it. The higher the abstraction, the wider the ratio decidendi.

(2) Reversal test – Professor Wambaugh suggests that we should hits take the proposition of law put forward by the judge, reverse or negate it and see if its reversal would alter the actual decision also. If yes, the proposition is the ratio part of it, otherwise not. This test, however will not help in cases where no proposition is given or when a court gives several reasons for its decisions.

(3) Material facts theory – In Professor Goodhart’s opinion ratio decidendi is nothing more than the decision based on the material facts of the case. If in a later case material facts coincide with or are identical with those of the earlier one, then earlier case is a precedent in point. The theory is, however, too simple. Different ratios can be derived from a decision by taking different combination of material facts, there may accordingly be subsequent doubt and dispute as to what the ratio of a particular decisions is.

(4) A case may have not one but several ratio decidendi (e.g. different opinions of different judges in a case).

(5) Simpson said that the ratio or precedent is not set and known just by one decision or case but by a series of them. Thus, for knowing the precedent we cannot rely only on one judgment but will have to go through a series of them to clearly understand the direction of law towards which it moving.

(6) Often the later courts cut down the expressed ratio decidendi of an earlier case on the ground that earlier rule was unnecessarily wide. It may be called “restrictive” distinguishing by which a court may treat a fact material which was considered immaterial by earlier decision or introduce an exception into the rule stated by the earlier court. Non-restrictive distinguishing occurs when a court accepts the ratio decidendi of earlier case, but find that the case before it does not fall within this ratio decidendi.

Obiter dicta

In simple terms, it refers to the observations made by a court in a particular case. All that is said by the court by the way or the statement of law which goes beyond the requirements of the particular case are obiter dicta. The judges are not bound to follow them though they can take advantage of the same. The obiter dictum may be respected according to the reputation of the judge, the eminence of the court, and the circumstances in which it came to be pronounced.

An example would be a rule of law stated merely by way of analogy, or illustration, or a suggested rule upon which the decision is not finally rested. The reason for not regarding an obiter dictum as binding is that it was probably made without a full consideration of the cases on the point and that, if very broad in its terms, it was probably made without a full consideration of all the consequences that may follow from it. It is frequently said that a ruling based upon hypothetical or unproved facts is obiter. This is often true.

There is a practice of regarding what is really ratio decidendi as obiter dictum by the later courts. By the process of restrictive distinguishing, later courts attempt to justify themselves by declaring that the unnecessarily wide statement was obiter.

Differences between ratio and obiter

A ratio decidendi differs from obiter dictum, as the former relates to material facts and decision of the case, while the latter concerns to the facts which are not relevant for the decision of case e.g. hypothetical facts, illustrations and casual expressions. A ratio decidendi is binding i.e. a precedent followed in future cases. While, an obiter dictum is not binding. Nevertheless, they (obiter) are important as not only do they help to rationalise the law but they serve to suggest solutions to the problems not yet decided by the courts.

It may be noted that the Allahabad (Ram Surat v Ram Murari AIR 1955 Bom 220), Bombay (K.P. Doctor v State AIR 1956 Bom 220) and Karnataka (State v South Central Railway AIR 1977 Kant 168) High Courts have held that the obiter dicta of the Supreme Court is also ‘Law’ within the meaning of Art. 141 of the Constitution, and hence binding on all courts.


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