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Relevance of case law

The decisions of courts can be powerful tools in persuading a government to respect, protect and fulfil a right.

Successful cases can have a significant positive effect on those directly involved. In addition, their judgements are usually respected and so a single judgement can persuade a government to take certain positive actions in other cases in order to protect that right when it might otherwise not have done so.

Previous cases also show which legal arguments have previously been successful and which have not. They can therefore be very useful for those considering how best to frame a new case or petition.

In Common Law legal systems found in the USA, England and other countries of the Commonwealth, judicial decisions have the force of law as much as legislation that the government passes. As such, they must be respected by the public, by lawyers and by the courts themselves. Courts have to follow the legal principles decided in previous decisions of courts of the same level or above. It is the norm that higher courts are not obliged to follow the decisions of courts of a lower standing, but in practice they do so unless there is a good reason not to.

In Civil Law systems such as those found in Continental Europe, Latin America, most of Africa and many Central European and Asian nations, a judge in the civil law system is not legally bound by the previous decision of a higher court in an identical or similar case, and in fact is free to ignore the decision altogether. However, lower courts tend to follow the decisions of higher courts in these systems because of their persuasive argumentation.

International decisions can serve important educative and interpretative purposes and act as effective lobbying tools. Whilst international courts and committees are not obliged to follow their previous decisions, there is fairly high degree of consistency in its decisions.

 Visit our case law database

 For more information on strategic litigation we recommend CRIN page: Child Rights: A Guide to Strategic Litigation

Other resources:

CRC from moral imperatives to legal obligations. In search for effective remedies for child rights violations.