Judicial Precedents in UK Legal System
The significance of judicial precedents has remained as a distinguishing trait of English Law. The supreme body of the unwritten or common law is almost wholly the product of decided cases, gathered in a large series of reports. Orthodox legal model long professed to treat the common law as a form of customary law and the judicial precedents as mere evidence of the customs and other laws derived from there (Guillaume, 2011, p. 6). However, this looked like an admitted fiction. Practically, England’s common law has been grounded on the decisions made by court judges and any modern systems as well as the common law cannot provide an authority that can be compared to reported precedents. As such, a text-book and a book of reports are on the same level as instruments and evidence of the law for persuasion of judges, but neither of these sources is anything more. On the other hand, English Law draws a sharp distinction between them. A judicial precedent speaks with a voice of authority in the U.K. because it is a source of law upon which the legal system depends.The judicial precedent doctrine is grounded on the stare decisis principle, whereby courts depend on previous case laws to make decisions. Under this principle, after a decision is made in one case, all future cases with similar facts and principles are decided based on the previous decision as reflected in Donoghue v Stevenson and Grand v Australian Knitting Mills (Guillaume, 2011, p. 10). While the Judicial precedent doctrine aids in maintaining justice, many legal experts have opposed it, citing that it limits the ability of law to recognize and adjust to different improvements in the society. Consequently, there are limitations and advantages to this doctrine which may be used in assessing its relevance in the UK Legal system.
One of the primary advantages of judicial precedents is that it shortens the time taken by judges to make decisions because the judges already have facts from previous cases that they can use to make decisions relating to a particular case. An example of how effective case laws can be used is presented in Hunter and Others v Canary Wharf and London Dockland Development Corporation (Guillaume, 2011, p. 13). In this case, the court made its decision according to the previously decided cases and did not use any original precedent. Judicial precedents have also ensured consistency between cases especially in the UK, which strengthens the systems and reduces criminal cases because the public is aware of the consequences of committing specific crimes. Besides, it is difficult for court decisions made using case laws to be contested because judges are usually less likely to make mistakes as depicted in the case of Kadhim v Brent London Borough Council. Such is important in upholding the integrity of the justice system.While there is a range of benefits of having the judicial precedent doctrine in the U.K., the doctrine has also been blamed for introducing unnecessary restrictions into the law. The society advances at a fast pace, and it is prudent for the law to keep abreast with the resulting changes (Chen, 2017, p. 543). However, judicial precedents usually prevent judges from establishing legal doctrines according to the developments in society, which depicts how the judicial system risk making decisions that do not reflect the current situation in society. Some decisions may require further adjustments, before being used by court judges to handle similar cases.
There is a high volume of cases, which judges may rely on when making their decisions based on case laws in the U.K. As a result, judges are confronted with too many cases, which may result into confusions. Besides, since there is a large number of case laws, judges may find it strenuous and time-consuming to interpreted and make sense of the law. Some scholars have also argued that judges sometimes find themselves looking for reasons not to follow a decision, which makes them make illogical decisions, which is not the intention of the doctrine.
Since the enactment of the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 in the U.K., the judicial precedents doctrine has been weakened. Ideally, legal principles and rules are required to coincide with the provisions of the Human Rights Act (Wilson, 2017, p. 10). As such, any rules and legal principles that contravene this act should be amended to ensure that the rights of citizens are protected. The HRA 1998, therefore, has a critical influence on the doctrine because it provides freedom to the lower courts to contest previous superior court decisions if they prove that such decisions go against the provisions of the Human Rights Act. Notably, judges tend using different interpretative frames when confronted with the Convention as depicted in the case of Culnane v Morris and Anor. In this case, the Defamation Act, section 10, was considered in making a decision consistent with the rights conveyed by the Convention (European Conventions on Human Rights). Courts could have been forced to uphold the decisions in Plummer v Charman under judicial precedents. However, because the decision made in Plummer was not consistent with the provisions of the HRA, Eady side-stepped the decision. As such, regarding human rights cases, judicial precedent cannot be ranked as absolutely effective.The judiciary is no longer required to adhere to case laws if they contravene the Convention. Therefore it may seem as if this doctrine has continued to weaken since the enactment of the HRA in 1998 on matters relating to the rights of citizens. Notably, some legal experts have held that the doctrine has lost its importance because, in Miller v Bull, The court deviated from the decision in Ahmed v Kennedy, which was made after the establishment of the HRA. In view of these cases, several suggestions have been made (Wilson, 2017, p. 16). For instance, it has been suggested that “gaping a hole in the precedent wall” exists because decisions can be made on cases relating to human rights at any point where they arise without using previous cases regardless of whether they are binding or not (Fafinski and Finch, 2009, p. 18). As a consequence, it is apparent that any case law can be disregarded if it contravenes the provisions of the Human Rights Act. Judicial precedent will always be disregarded if it can be proved that a decision is not compatible with Convectional Rights. Therefore U.K. Courts may have the freedom to set aside the decisions of higher courts in cases concerning human rights.
It is also worth noting that once the issues concerning human rights have been sorted, subsequent decisions will be required to coincide with the decisions in precious case laws, a process that will help in reinstating the doctrine of judicial precedent to ensure that consistency is maintained in the judicial system. Section two of the HRA states that future courts must recognize the decisions of EHCR when making decisions on cases relating to human rights (Fafinski and Finch, 2009, p. 15). Although previous court decisions may not be formally binding, they are very persuasive in the U.K. in determining court cases and making judicial opinions, rulings and decisions. Consequently, all cases relating to human rights will be determined according to the doctrine of judicial precedent. Although courts will comply with the ECHR (European Conventions on Human Rights) provisions provided they are consistent, it cannot be concluded that judicial institutions can comply with Strasbourg decisions. The judicial precedents were halted when the Human Rights Act was established to enable courts to handle cases about human rights effectively. However, the judicial precedent doctrine has regained its stance as courts are making decisions with the provisions of the HRA in mind. Arguably, while HRA imposes a critical influence on how judicial precedents are understood, the doctrine’s dominant features remain constant and as soon as courts solve all human rights issues, the doctrine will be fully restored.The doctrine of stare decisis is still relevant in the U.K. legal system in making judicial opinions, judgments, and rulings because courts still use it to ensure consistency and predictability in the law. The consistency and certainty guaranteed by the doctrine enable judges to effectuate judicial processes at a faster pace. Also, using the judicial precedent doctrine promotes fairness because cases with similar facts are treated the same. Legal principles and rules can be established using this doctrine to make the judicial system more flexible. Conversely, there are many inherent limitations of this doctrine. For instance, it places unnecessary restrictions on courts to comply with previous case laws when making decisions, which may make them unable to adjust to changes in society. Since the enactment of the HRA in the U.K. in 1998, the doctrine of stare decisis appears to have been weakened, yet with the establishment of new decisions after the enactment of the HRA, the judicial precedent doctrine will become more persuasive in determining court cases and decisions. As such, the doctrine of judicial precedence will remain critical, given its significance in the U.K. legal system.