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Legal skills and debates in Scotland
Legal skills and debates in Scotland

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2.1  Precedent

Precedent forms the basis of the common law. This is one of the sources of law in Scotland. The judiciary may, on occasion, determine the meaning of a term in a piece of legislation and they also create law through precedent. There are areas of law, such as delict, where little legislation exists. When legislation does not exist, courts have to make a decision on the facts before them and look at previous decisions to determine the outcome of a case. In this way they develop an area of law known as common law.

There are two notions of precedent. Firstly is that it is dynamic, the legal principle developed in a previous case can be applied in subsequent similar cases. This allows the common law to evolve incrementally in order to cover newer factual situations and changing social circumstances and norms that have some resemblance to, or roots in, the first case. Secondly, is that it is a static mechanism to ensure certainty, so far as possible, in the law.

The static doctrine of binding precedent is known as the doctrine of stare decisis, which is Latin meaning ‘to stand by/adhere to decided cases’, i.e. to follow precedent. In other words, once a legal principle is decided in one case it should be followed in similar future cases. The doctrine of binding precedent refers to the fact that, within the hierarchical structure of the courts in Scotland, the decision of a higher court will be binding on a lower court. In general terms, this means that when judges try cases they will check to see if a similar situation has come before a court previously.

If a precedent from a similar situation exists and it was set by a court of equal or higher status to the court deciding the new case, then the judge in the present case should follow the legal principle established in the earlier case. Where the precedent is from a lower court in the hierarchy, the judge in the new case may not follow but will certainly consider it.

There are three essential elements to this system of precedent:

  • a court hierarchy
  • binding precedent
  • accurate law reporting.

You should now watch the following video which explores precedent.

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Exploring precedent
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The UK Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal for civil matters in Scotland. It hears matters which involve points of law of general public importance and concentrates on cases of the greatest public and constitutional importance. Its decisions are binding on all courts lower in the court hierarchy. In concentrating on cases involving points of law which are of public importance and cases of the greatest public and constitutional importance the court makes decisions which help shape society. It is also the final arbiter on devolution issues.

Two images relating to the High Court of Justiciary and two relating to the UK Supreme Court.
Figure 6The Highest Appeal Courts: Scotland

The High Court of Justiciary is Scotland's supreme criminal court. When sitting as an appeal court, the court consists of at least three judges when hearing appeals against conviction and two when hearing sentence appeals. More judges may sit when the court is dealing with exceptionally difficult cases or those where important matters of law may be considered.