The doctrine of precedent refers to previous decisions made by judges that can be used to help them decide on cases that are similar. The English system of precedent is based on the principle stare decisis, which means to stand by what has been decided. It can be broken down into two parts, ratio decidendi and obiter dicta. Ratio decidendi are the principles of law that a judge has used to come to the decision at the end of a case. Ratio decidendi loosely means “Any rule expressed or implied by the judge as a necessary step in reaching his conclusion”.
Obiter dicta refers to “the other things said” by the judges and does not necessarily have to be followed by judges in future cases. The most basic and important principle upon which the doctrine of judicial precedent lies, is that a hierarchy of courts is needed if it is to function. The Court of Appeal is the highest court within the Senior Courts of England and Wales, and deals only with appeals from other courts or tribunals. The decision of the Court of Appeal is binding for High Court and other lower courts but not for the Supreme Court.
The Court of Appeal need not to follow the previous binding precedent on three circumstances. Firstly, when the previous decision conflict, the Court of Appeal must decide which has to follow and which has to reject (Law v Jones). Secondly, where previous decision conflict with Supreme Court (Street v Moundford). Thirdly, When the previous decision was given carelessly or recklessly (Rickards v Rickards). There is no difference on the application of stare decisis as between the civil and criminal division of the Court of Appeal. The doctrine of judicial precedent primarily assists Courts when making decisions via previously decided case law. This gives the assurance of a quicker judicial process and the reliability and regularity within the judicial system.
In similar cases there will be a more decisiveness and they will be treated with more impartiality, which prevents any injustice from occurring. This sets the standard as legal rules and principles can be developed which in turn creates a more flexible judicial system. However, there are several disadvantages that exist under the doctrine, such as the unwarranted limitations that basically force judges to adhere to previous decisions. This could hinder progression of the law as society evolves as many of the principles may be somewhat outdated. Furthermore, due to the number of cases that exist, it may become exceedingly demanding and time consuming to fully understand the law.
Since the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted, the doctrine of judicial precedent powers have dwindled, however with the increase in new case laws, the doctrine will in fact be reinstituted. This is of utmost importance given the significance of judicial precedence and although there are many disadvantages, these appear to be outweighed by the advantages.