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Doctrine of Ratio Decidendi – Meaning, Case Laws & Analysis


The need for the law emerges whenever the conflict arises in a society; the so-called “conflict” is the ramification of the difference of opinion in the shared ideas. Thus disputes and confrontation of ideas in society have led to the promulgation of the law in order to obviate unnecessary chaos in a community. The vast array of definitions and interpretations of law are available, but the catchall connotation is that law prescribes the rightful conduct and comportment of a person in a society. The sources of such a legal framework include customs, legislation, and precedents. The customs and beliefs as being the bedrock of primitive society have contributed to the outgrowth of legal practice in the name of customary law. The same is the Opino Juris accepted by a community of people and have been prevailing for a prolonged period in a locale. While legislation is the set of laws promulgated by the legislature and executed by the executive in accordance with which the judicial system performs.

A latter source is the precedents: the judicial system allows the judges to interpret and perform productive works to permeate the lacuna in existing legislation, which they think incompetent to the status quo. Such decisions made by the judge as per their own sense of rights and wrongs will guide future cases with similar facts. Thus, the precedents are the guide that can be followed for future similar cases. The binding authority of precedents never goes incapable unless and until it ultra vires any of the existing statutes. Universally, every precedent consists of Ratio Decidendi and Obiter dicta among which the former is considered to be the rule of the court, and the same alone is binding.

A Brief about Precedent:

To define the doctrine of Ratio Decidendi, it is a prerequisite to understanding the doctrine of precedent. In common parlance, the judicial precedent is the principle expressed in the preceding case. Sir John Salmond opined the same as ‘A precedent is said to be a judicial decision which contains its principles. The stated principle which thus forms its authoritative element is called the ratio decidendi. The concrete decision is thus binding between the parties, but it is the abstract ratio decidendi which alone has the force of law as regards the world at large.’ Thus, the term ratio refers to the rule or set of rules used by the court to settle the arisen dispute. It is the ‘law declared’ in the judgment, which forms the precedent.

As already mentioned, the precedent comes into force as qua authoritative rule when the analogous case with similar facts arises in lower courts or a lesser bench tribunal.

Further, the precedent is the statement pronounced by a judge or bench while rendering the judgment. The precedent is known to be a source of law, qua while rendering the decision of ongoing dispute; the court elucidates and expounds the related law.

Definitions of precedent:

Jeremy Bentham considered precedents as ‘judge-made laws’. Withal, john Austin defines the same as ‘judiciary’s law’. Withal, ‘the precedent covers everything said or done, which furnishes a rule for subsequent practice’, according to Gray.

Types of Precedent:

1. Persuasive precedent: the precedent majorly relies upon the fact of the case at hand. It is non-binding in nature and not required to be followed but convinces the judge to decide accordingly. It is not a direct source of law, per contra capable of contributing to the historical precedent.

For example, one high court precedents are persuasive to other high courts, and foreign judgments are generally persuasive and Section 13 of CPC lays rules to be satisfied for its enforcement.

2. Binding precedent: the mandatory precedent to be followed. Such precedents have appertained on the principle of stare decisis. The Latin term this connotes ‘to stand by that, which is decided’. The court hierarchy plays a prominent role in its functioning. For example, the decision of the apex court is binding to the high courts. Meanwhile, lower courts under high court jurisdiction are bound to their higher court decisions.

Generally, a bench with two judges constitutes a division bench, whereas, three or more judges contribute to a full bench that depends on the nature of the appeal. As per the general principle, the smaller bench is bound by the decision of the larger bench.

Constitutional provision about the binding nature of precedent:

Article 141 of the Indian constitution prescribes that all courts are binding to the law declared by the Apex court. Since the precedents are mean to offer clarity over the existing law of the land by elucidating its vagueness, the constitution has propounded the binding nature of the precedent in India.

Brief about Ratio Decidendi:

In legal parlance, the ratio Decidendi means ‘reason for the decision’. It is the requisite rationale to reach the decision, which may not only rely on the law attached to the case at hand but all other status quo notions and principles. Comprehensively, the ratio will not include the,

  • Case facts
  • Application of legislations to settle the dispute, and
  • Order or judgment.

The authority of decision qua precedent lies on its ratio Decidendi. Thus, the confrontation of the legislation alone should take into account regardless of the dispute in facts. In general, a judicial decision is a composition of three parts, namely, Ratio Decidendi, Res Judicata, and Obiter Dicta.

Ratio Decidendi: it is not the actual decision, but the necessary measures need to reach the judgment. Since it is the ratio of decision, the same is binding on other courts.

Res Judicata: it is the actual decision of the court. Since it is binding on the parties to the case, they cannot re-litigate the same issue already determined by the court.

Obiter Dicta: it is the opinion or suggestion, which is not germane to the current case has expressed by the judge while deciding the same. Generally, it is not authoritative and not binding.

As far as the judicial precedent is concerned, the reason for the decision is requisite and not the eventual decision held by the court. Since every single case has distinct facts, it is unfair to bind on the prior case judgment. But, the observations and reasons propounded on such a case can be followed.

Finding the ratio of a legal decision is not an easy task to be performed, as the margin between the Ratio Decidendi and other interpretations of law like Dictum is sightly obscure. The additional commotion with the very notion of Ratio Decidendi is that what if a precedent has a lot of observations and ratio. This not a Res Integra question since if there are multiple reasons, then all the rations are binding.

Descriptive Ratio Decidendi: it is the reason for the decision from the original case.

Prescriptive Ratio Decidendi: it describes how the descriptive ratio applies for a future case as a precedent.

Determination of Ratio Decidendi: 

The Ratio Decidendi in a judgment can be ascertained via the followings steps,

  • The material facts should be emphasized with obviating the inessential facts.
  • The Facts of the case, as well as the propounded reasoning, should be analyzed to ascertain the ratio with reference to major and minor premises.
  • Figuring out the precedents cited in the respective case.
  • Assessing the opinions expressed by the majority of judges.
  • The essence of the decision should be examined.

Rules of Ratio Decidendi:

  • The ratios should be conclusive and not just a mere attempt of scrutinizing the fact.
  • The core element of the dispute should be analyzed and resolved through such reasons.
  • The reasons should be relevant to the arisen issue.
  • The rations should come out of a dispute in law not from the dispute in facts.
  • As already mentioned, all the reasons expressed in a precedent are binding.
  • In a case, when the judges agree to the decision but have different reasons for the same. Then, the core area of acceptance shall be focused on.
  • The ratio Decidendi can never develop out of the aggregation of the different components of separate reasons.

Case laws:

The definition of Ratio Decidendi was explicated in the case of Sir George Jessel in Osborne v. Rowlett[1] as, “The only thing in a Judge’s decision binding as an authority upon a subsequent Judge is the principle upon which the case was decided”.

In the Unnikrishnan v. State of Andhra Pradesh[2] case, the primary issue was about the right to higher education. But the court held that the right to primary education was a fundamental right under the Indian constitution. Thus, the declared verdict is upon the dictum observation.

The dictum and ratio were distinguished in the case of Director of Settlements, A.P. & Ors. V. M.R. Apparao & Anr[3] as dictum is the observation of court on the arisen legal question which may not aid in attaining the decision of the case at hand. The same has been stated in the case of State of Haryana v. Ranbir.[4]

The significant role played by the level of generality or process of abstraction in finding the Ratio Decidendi in a case has been expressed by the apex court in S.I. Rooplal and another v. Lt. Governor through Chief Secretary, Delhi, and others[5] case.

In the case of B. Shama Rao v. UT of Pondicherry[6]wherein it has commented that the order of the court is not binding, but the rationale is binding qua precedent. Only the ratio Decidendi is bending and considered as a precedent, expressed in the case of Union of India v. Manikal Banerjee[7].

The case of State of Orissa v. Sudhanshu Shekhar Mishra[8], in which the combination of a judgment has been stated as follows,

A judgment contains,

  • The observation on material facts, and
  • The explanation of the principle of law applicable to the arisen dispute.

It was held in the case of Minerva Mills v. Union of India[9] that, despite the difference in some judges’ reasoning. The case continues to have the value of precedent unless and until the ratio of the case has the majority.

If a decision proposed by the bench with three judges has found to be incorrect by a two-judge bench, the latter cannot be followed as the precedent. The issue can be legally addressed only by another three-judge bench, Pradip Chandra Parija v. Pramod Chandra Patnaik.[10]

Analysis and Conclusion:

The law is something that can be interpreted in many ways like, Savigny, considered a peculiar system of law was a reflection of the “spirit of the people”. He called it volksgiest. On the other hand, John Austin considered it as command of the sovereign. The Other perception of law is that it is the rightness (Ethics) of will and never be enforced by the external legislations. As a contradiction, others say that law is the science of the totality of rules for which external legislation is possible (Nomology). By reading these many various definitions of law one should not conclude that law is vague and undefined since it is perceptual in nature. As, these notions of law, which have been approved by the majority of the society, will form a principle. Those set of principles would compile the jurisprudence. This Jurisprudence refers to both philosophies of law or legal theory and case laws.

Thus, case-law alias precedents are the cornerstone on which the modern common law has been framed. Since it connotes that how the law has been the instrument of social change or vice versa, it kept updating itself in accordance with the status quo. As mentioned, judgments are the source of law, and the judges have been empowered with judicial law-making authority. When it comes to the doctrine of Ratio Decidendi, the rationale of decision forms precedent, such observations for reasons takes place in the light of the common law principle of contemporanea exposito, which connotes that the interpreter of law should put themselves at the time of enactment. Indeed, by doing so, a clear vision over the existing legislation can endeavor.



[1] (1880) 13 Ch D 774.

[2] [1993] 1 SCC 645.

[3] (2002)4 SCC 638.

[4] (2006) 5 SCC 167

[5] A.I.R. 2000 SC 594.

[6] 1967 AIR 1480, 1967 SCR (2) 650.

[7] AIR 2006 SC 2844.

[8] AIR 1968 SC 647.

[9] AIR 1980 SC 1789.

[10] AIR 2002 SC 296 ;(2002) 1 SCC 1.

This article has been written by Snegapriya V S, 2nd year(B.A., LL.B) student at Vellore Institute of Technology.

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