The rule of precedent is fundamental to most of the legal systems that JustCite includes. The principle (originally known as Stare Deicis) is mainly based on the fact that all men should be equal under the law. Once a decision has been made on any point, subsequent decisions should be made using a similar rationale. Of course this can only work effectively if there is a true and accurate record of the decisions made – which is where law reporting come in.
Point of Confusion!
Not all countries use this method of making decisions. The countries that do so are known as Common Law jurisdictions. Other jurisdictions are known as Civil Law jurisdicitions. In these jurisdictions, cases may well be used as guidance for informing the Courts, but the only binding authority is that of the Civil power.
The first written law reports available on JustCite were known as Nominate Reports, they were called this because the books containing the reports were named after the author. The reports would only carry information about cases the reporter had seen directly, and the annotations are often limited in nature.
Over time, institutions formed in order to make sure that valuable cases did not go unreported. In the United Kingdom, The Law Reports started in 1865, providing consistently formatted reports with head-notes.This model was soon followed by other series of reports. Eventually, publishing houses began to print specialist series for certain practice areas.
These printed cases with notations proved valuable for lawyers, as they provided a valuable refresher to the memory. However, they came at the cost of delay – a skilled lawyer must take time and care to create a head note. Also, the nature of selection meant that some cases were reported in 5 or 6 voluumes, which caused confusion as the citations might differ between books. On the other hand, many other cases which may be valuable remained unreported due to lack of time or space. As Lord Denning famously made clear:
…every decision of the Court of Appeal on a point of law is binding on all courts of first instance and on the Court of Appeal itself. No matter whether the decision is reported in the regular series of Law Reports, or is unreported, it is binding. Once you have the transcript of an unreported decision, you can cite it as of equal authority to a reported decision, so it behoves every counsel or solicitor to find, if he can, a case – reported or unreported – which will help him advise or win his case.
However, the use of paper and print limited the amount of law that could easily be reported or researched. Even if enough lawyers could be found to edit every case, no library could hold the sheer amount of paper that would be required and remain practical. The advent of computers drastically altered this forever, by allowing lawyers access to vast swathes of legitimate precedent in an easy to use format.
To help deal with the identification of cases, from 2001 the England and Wales courts began introducing Neutral Citations – assinged by the Courts rather than independent publishing houses. This improved identification of cases between series, as well as making the citation of unreported case law much easier. Many other jurisdictions such as Australia and Canada have a similar system which makes using similar law worldwide a possibility. In particular, the hard work of institutions such as BAILII and AustLII cannot be underestimated.