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Definition of Precedent

Babylon English Dictionary

preceding, earlier; prior, previous; having priority
previous legal decision serving as an authoritative rule, authoritative example; model, standard, example
Precedent Definition from Language, Idioms & Slang Dictionaries & Glossaries
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)
(n.)
Something done or said that may serve as an example to authorize a subsequent act of the same kind; an authoritative example.
  
(n.)
A rough draught of a writing which precedes a finished copy.
  
(n.)
A preceding circumstance or condition; an antecedent; hence, a prognostic; a token; a sign.
  
(n.)
A judicial decision which serves as a rule for future determinations in similar or analogous cases; an authority to be followed in courts of justice; forms of proceeding to be followed in similar cases.
  
(a.)
Going before; anterior; preceding; antecedent; as, precedent services.
  
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913), edited by Noah Porter. About
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precedent
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precedent
\pre*ced"ent\ (?), a. [l. praecedens, -entis, p. pr. of praecedere: cf. f. précédent. see precede.] going before; anterior; preceding; antecedent; as, precedent services. "a precedent injury."

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An instance that may serve as a guide or basis for a rule.
The Devil's Dictionary
Precedent, (n.)

In Law, a previous decision, rule or practice which, in the absence of a definite statute, has whatever force and authority a Judge may choose to give it, thereby greatly simplifying his task of doing as he pleases. As there are precedents for everything, he has only to ignore those that make against his interest and accentuate those in the line of his desire. Invention of the precedent elevates the trial-at-law from the low estate of a fortuitous ordeal to the noble attitude of a dirigible arbitrament.
  
The Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce, 1911 (About)
WordNet 2.0

Noun
1. an example that is used to justify similar occurrences at a later time
(synonym) case in point
(hypernym) example, illustration, instance, representative
(derivation) predate, precede, forego, antecede, antedate
2. (civil law) a law established by following earlier judicial decisions
(synonym) case law, common law
(hypernym) civil law
(classification) civil law
(class) service
3. a system of jurisprudence based on judicial precedents rather than statutory laws; "common law originated in the unwritten laws of England and was later applied in the United States"
(synonym) common law, case law
(hypernym) law, jurisprudence
(classification) law, jurisprudence
4. a subject mentioned earlier (preceding in time)
(hypernym) subject, topic, theme
(derivation) precede, predate

Adjective
1. preceding in time, order, or significance
(similar) preceding(a)
Precedent Definition from Social Science Dictionaries & Glossaries
Glossary of Parliamentary Procedure
A Speaker's ruling or a practice of the House taken as a rule for subsequent cases of a similar nature. Not all decisions and practices constitute precedents.
Under the authority of the Clerk of the House of Commons
Precedent Definition from Encyclopedia Dictionaries & Glossaries
Wikipedia English - The Free Encyclopedia
In common law legal systems, a precedent or authority is a principle or rule established in a previous legal case that is either binding on or persuasive for a court or other tribunal when deciding subsequent cases with similar issues or facts. The general principle in common law legal systems is that similar cases should be decided so as to give similar and predictable outcomes, and the principle of precedent is the mechanism by which that goal is attained.  Black's Law Dictionary defines "precedent" as a "rule of law established for the first time by a court for a particular type of case and thereafter referred to in deciding similar cases." Common law precedent is a third kind of law, on equal footing with statutory law (statutes and codes enacted by legislative bodies), and regulatory law (regulations promulgated by executive branch agencies).

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Precedent Definition from Law Dictionaries & Glossaries
The 'Lectric Law Library
Legal principle, created by a court decision, which provides an example or authority for judges deciding similar issues later. Generally, decisions of higher courts (within a particular system of courts) are mandatory precedent on lower courts within that system--that is, the principle announced by a higher court must be followed in later cases. For example, the California Supreme Court decision that unmarried people who live together may enter into cohabitation agreements (Marvin v. Marvin), is binding on all appellate courts and trial courts in California (which are lower courts in relation to the California Supreme Court). Similarly, decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court (the highest court in the country) are generally binding on all other courts in the U.S.

Decisions of lower courts are not binding on higher courts, although from time to time a higher court will adopt the reasoning and conclusion of a lower court. Decisions by courts of the same level (usually appellate courts) are considered persuasive authority. That is, they should always be carefully considered by the later court but need not be followed.

As a practical matter, courts can usually find precedent for any direction they want to go in deciding a particular case. Accordingly, precedent is used as often to justify a particular outcome in a case as it is to guide the decision.

The body of judicial decisions in which were formulated the points of law arising in any case. A previously decided case that is considered binding in the court where it was issued and in all lower courts in the same jurisdiction.

A court decision in an earlier case with facts and law similar to a dispute currently before a court. Precedent will ordinarily govern the decision of a later similar case, unless a party can show that it was wrongly decided or that it differed in some significant way.

The decision of courts of justice when exactly in point with a case before the court are generally held to have a binding authority, as well to keep the scale of justice even and steady because the law in that case has been solemnly declared and determined.

To render precedents valid they must be founded in reason and justice; must have been made upon argument, and be the solemn decision of the court; and in order to give them binding effect there must be a current of decisions.

According to Lord Talbot, it is "much better to stick to the known general rules than to follow any one particular precedent which may be founded on reason unknown to us." Blackstone says, that a former decision is in general to be followed unless "manifestly absurd or unjust," and, in the latter case, it is declared when overruled not that the former sentence was bad law, but that it was not law.

Precedents can only be useful when they show that the case has been decided upon a certain principle and ought not to be binding when contrary to such principle. If a precedent is to be followed because it is a precedent, even when decided against an established rule of law, there can be no possible correction of abuses because the fact of their existence renders them above the law. It is always safe to rely upon principles.

"In Law, a previous decision, rule or practice which, in the absence of a definite statute, has whatever force and authority a Judge may choose to give it, thereby greatly simplifying his task of doing as he pleases. As there are precedents for everything, he has only to ignore those that make against his interest and accentuate those in the line of his desire. Invention of the precedent elevates the trial-at-law from the low estate of a fortuitous ordeal to the noble attitude of a dirigible arbitrament." -- Ambrose Bierce
   

This entry contains material from Bouvier's Legal Dictionary, a work published in the 1850's.
Courtesy of the 'Lectric Law Library.
Duhaime.org Legal Dictionary
A case which establishes legal principles to a certain set of facts, coming to a certain conclusion, and which is to be followed from that point on when similar or identical facts are before a court. - (read more on Precedent)
  
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Divorcesource.com Dictionary
something that has already happened that will influence how future similar events will be viewed by the court.