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Doctrine of ratio decidendi and if application in India

Doctrine of ratio decidendi and if application in India

  1. Doctrine of ratio decidendi and if application in India 


From time to time, different jurists, judges, and academicians have tried to explain what ratio decidendi is. Professor Goodhart wrote about this topic in his article “Determining the Ratio Decidendi of a Case”. He published his article in 1930. One of the easiest definitions of Ratio Decidendi is “reasons for the decision”. However, limiting oneself to this definition will mean that we are following the narrowest possible interpretation of the words. The ‘reason’ of the decision of the court is not the facts, laws, or the orders of the case. The reason is the step that a judge took in order to resolve the case. It is the necessary steps that the judge needs to take in order to reach the conclusion that the judge reached. It must be related to the issue of the case. 

The ratio decidendi does not originate from the dispute of the facts but originates from the dispute of the laws. It is the ratio decidendi that lays down the precedent regarding any law or issue. It is quite ironic that when a ratio has multiple reasons behind it, all of that reasoning will be considered valid. The ratio decidendi can be found in many ways in any judgment. These forms are usually- common law rules, interpretation of the statute, or interpretation of the common law rules. There are different types of benches of judges in India, In order to make a ratio binding, it must be backed by the majority of the judges. Judges may present different judgments, but they must have some reasons in common. 

Types of ratio decidendi: The ratio decidendi can be of two types- 

  1. Descriptive ratio, and 
  2. Prescriptive Ratio. 

The descriptive ratio is the main reason which has guided or helped the court in reaching the final decision. It is the original ratio and it lays the path for future cases. Meanwhile, the prescriptive ratio lays down the interpretation of the descriptive ratio. Two different cases will rarely have a similar set of facts. Due to this, a problem regarding the future application of the precedent set arises. Here the descriptive ratio is a little changed by the use of the level of generality. In order to understand the proper application and meaning of the Ratio Decidendi, we will have to learn what the level of generality is. The ‘level of generality’ acts as the transformation of a judgment into future judgments. This transformation occurs in the form of precedent. But the precedent may be completely useless until a case arises that has similar facts. Hence, there arises the need for the level of generality. It is the determination of the similarity or difference that will be found acceptable in terms of the old case and the new case. Let us understand this with the help of an example. One of the very famous cases from the United Kingdom is Donoghue vs. Stevenson. We will be studying the same case for our examples. In the above case, the House of Lords was dealing with the manufacturer of a ginger beer. One of their consumers had found a snail in the sealed bottle of ginger beer. Hence, the question that the House of Lords faced was: whether the manufacturer of the beer was liable to the consumer if the consumer had fallen ill after drinking the beer which was contaminated by the snail. The House of Lords held the manufacturer of the ginger beer liable. If one just uses the simplest of the interpretation, one will conclude that the precedent set by the case will be followed in future cases when the case has a similar case. So, if we even replace the company’s title, the facts change and it will be a major problem to decide whether the case is applicable or not. But this judgment is relevant for the cases related to some negligence that has been done by the company. 


Ratio decidendi is important in judicial precedents because it acts as the legal guideline underlying the choices in a specific case. Ratio Decidendi lays down the precedent of future cases. They are considered as most important part of a judge’s discourse. The case laws or precedents are still considered as sources of law around the world. 

stare decisis: The idea of precedent is based on the Latin principle of stare decisis. The principle states that if something has been decided by the court in the past, there is no need to change it. In simpler terms, what the principle says is to follow the common law and Judges don’t attempt to change it unless there is a compelling reason to decide otherwise.


Finding ratio decidendi is an art and not a mechanical process as often thought by people normally. One acquires the skill gradually by the way of practice. The process of extracting or finding the ratio decidendi is called the process of abstraction. This has been highlighted by courts in various cases. In the S.I. Rooplal and another v. Lt. Governor through Chief Secretary, Delhi, and others, A.I.R. 2000 SC 594, the court talked about the same in detail. The honorable court held that even though all the courts in the country were to follow the law declared by the Supreme Court, it was the duty and responsibility of the court to find out the ratio of the case. 

The question of ‘how’ was discussed a little in the Delhi Administration ( Now NCT] Delhi) v Manohar Lal(2002)7 SCC 222. The court said that the ratio decidendi had to be ascertained by the analysis of the facts of the case. The court needs to find the major premise and minor premise of the case. The major premise consists of the pre-existing rule of law. The minor premise is “the material facts of the case under immediate consideration”.

Method of finding ratio decidendi: There are two methods of finding ratio decidendi as per the National Judicial Academy. The first one is the conventional method and the other one is the inversion test. 

The conventional method lays down certain guidelines which are to be read to understand what might constitute the ratio in any judgment. These guidelines are as follows:

  • The ratio decidendi must be arising from a dispute of law.
  • The part must be necessary for determining lis (means dispute).
  • It must be in direct relation to the issue
  • It must have been argued and decided on due consideration.

The second method is the inversion test which is also known as the Wambagh test. It was propounded by a professor at Harvard Law School. The inversion test asks us to reverse or negate the proposition of law that has been put forward by the judge in any case. Then one must check if the reversal would have altered the actual decision. If the answer to this question is yes, then it means that proposition is the part of the ratio decidendi. If there would have been no impact of the reversal, then it would not be considered as the ratio. This method has been applied by the Supreme Court in the State of Gujarat v. Utility Users Welfare Association Civil Appeal No.14697 of 2015 (SC)

Difference between ratio decidendi and obiter dictum? 

The basic difference between the two parts of a judgment is the basis of their importance or legal value. Ratio Decidendi lays down laws for the future and are of high importance but Obiter Dictum does not carry that much legal authority. The Supreme Court has been contradicting itself in terms of its judgment on the same topic. The ratio decidendi has a binding effect meanwhile the obiter dictum is of persuasive effect.

Ratio decidendi are the reasons behind the decision given by the court, but the obiter dictum is the normal statement that may help one understand the circumstances that led to the decision of the court.

Let us try to understand the difference between the obiter dicta and the ratio decidendi with the help of a very famous example. There exists legislation by the title of the Dog Act,1947. Section 6 of the said act says that: ‘A person may bring an action against the owner of a dog if the dog enters land owned by that person.’ Elizabeth is the owner of a meadow and has brought up action under S. 6 of the said legislation. The case has been filed against a certain individual named Kit Walker. Elizabeth complained that Kit had allowed his pet wolf to walk in the meadow of Elizabeth. She had given him repeated warnings but he did it to cause distress to Elizabeth and her rabbit. The legal point was whether the domesticated wolf could be considered as a dog under section 6 of the Dog Act. The court held that Elizabeth was entitled to bring the case to court. This right was recognized as Elizabeth was the rightful owner of the meadow. However, it was held that the provisions of the act clearly state that they deal with ‘domesticated dogs’ under section 6. In the present case, the animal was the wolf. The wolf had not been domesticated, still, it was a rare incident that someone was domesticating it. Hence, the Devil was not considered as the ordinarily domesticated dog. The Ratio Decidendi of the present example: The term ‘dog’ under section 6 of the act “means only a dog of a type which is ordinarily domesticated”. Hence, the act did not cover the wolf which has been domesticated. Obiter Dictum in the present scenario: In a situation where Elizabeth had not paid off the mortgage, it was not possible to bring the case by both Elizabeth and Rural Bank as co-plaintiffs.


Every judgment is made up of 2 major parts. Obiter Dictum and Ratio Decidendi. Ratio Decidendi is the reasoning behind the judgment. It is the reason why a particular conclusion was reached by the court. 

What are the things that guided the honorable court in pronouncing the judgment in the manner it was? Obiter dictum is the statement that a court makes while pronouncing the judgment. These statements don’t hold any legal sanction or don’t lay down any new law. However, these statements may help to understand the condition of the case. They act as a supporting ladder in understanding the ratio decidendi. The ratio decidendi lays down the case law for the future but obiter dictums just help to understand the judgment.

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