What is a Legal Precedent?

Written by AskTheLawyers.com™ on behalf of Jan V. Hinson with Tilton & Tilton LLP.

What is a Legal Precedent?
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Legal precedents are an important part of the way our justice system works, yet many people have only a vague understanding of what a precedent is and what part it plays in a given case. According to the Legal Information Institute, precedent refers to a previous court decision that is “considered as authority for deciding subsequent cases involving identical or similar facts, or similar legal issues”.

One of the best examples of legal precedent can be seen in the impact the Brown v. Board of Education decision had on the landscape of the future justice system.

The court’s decision in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 has set up an ongoing precedent which has since played a significant role in overturning laws that enforced segregation and/or other acts of inequality. People in the U.S. have probably learned about or at least heard references to the Brown v. Board of Education case at some time, and be somewhat familiar with the proceedings. In this case, the court decided that “separate but equal” facilities were unconstitutional, and that public schools could not be segregated.

This striking down of the separate-but-equal legal philosophy continued to set an important precedent for overturning laws regarding segregation and inequality. In future cases regarding equal rights, lawyers could and still can point to this court decision as a valid precedent for the court to consider in relation to the issue at hand.

Legal precedents are an effective way to utilize the wisdom of the past and prevent wasted effort by reinventing the wheel.

There’s nothing new under the sun, and this includes court cases. If one court has heard a case and come to a conclusion that is generally agreed to be just and appropriate, another court hearing a similar or identical case can take into consideration that precedent to decide if it is applicable in their situation. In many cases, it is.

While a court can certainly diverge from legal precedents, in many instances there is no reason to. Considering that every court is required to meet the same burdens of proof before establishing someone’s guilt or liability, assuming the trial was conducted without error, the legal precedent should theoretically be valid and can save all the parties involved a good deal of time and effort.

Legal precedents can also give the involved parties an idea of what to expect from their trial.

Considering the legal precedents set by similar cases can be an effective way for parties involved in a lawsuit to get an idea of what to expect. A relevant legal precedent might give the parties an indication of the potential outcome for their case—or it might give them an idea of what presumptions they will need to combat in court to prove that the precedent is not applicable. Legal precedents can also be a good way to gauge the relative “rightness” of a court’s decision. If courts across the country are hearing similar cases and coming to similar conclusions, it lends more credibility to the precedent to continue its application in future cases. However, if courts across the country are more split than not in regard to a certain type of case, there may not be a relevant precedent to refer to yet.

It’s important to note that as useful as legal precedents can be, they are not always applicable. If you are involved in a case in which you feel a precedent is being considered which is not applicable, discuss the issue with your legal counsel. Even between cases that are practically identical, minute differences in the details could make a precedent more or less relevant.

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