March 30, 2023

Obiter Dicta and Ratio Decidendi: a tug of war


Over the years there have been many questions raised and a lot has been written on the subject on what determines obiter dicta and ratio decidendi. Legal academics have been arguing ever since over this and there hasn’t been a single concrete conclusion, yet it also hans’t given us the liberty and room to interpret this maxim as we please. 

When we look at Obiter Dicta and Ratio Decidendi as a part of stare decisis we expect it to be a straight forward principle which ought to be used by a judge in determining the case by referring to other case laws and hence too much emphasis is laid on precedent as is, we forget or we simply just don’t know, or tend to not look beyond precedent as is, and get into its broader spectrum of how it could be molded without changing its essence and we also tend to lose sight of how it doesn’t necessarily have to be a textbook definition of what a judge can decide on a principle given.

The law is a significant mechanism in any of the societies as it properly carves the behaviour and conduct of beings in that society. It realizes the acceptable norms between the people and institutions which has the potential to avoid conflicts and mandates the following of such norms.


In the ordinary sense, we refer to as ratio the reason behind the decision but actually, it is much more than that. 

  • The reason in this regard is not merely applying the law to the facts and coming up with an order.
  • Ratio instead refers to the steps that are involved to resolve a dispute, this resolution must be directly related to the issue or issues that are at the core of  the dispute at hand.
  • It must come from disputes of law, not disputes of fact.
  • Ratio Decidendi must be argued in court and the facts of the precedent case shape the level of generality to which the later courts decide the level of generality.
  • Ironically, when a precedent has multiple reasons, all reasons are binding.
  • Ratio becomes a very powerful tool in the hands of a lawyer and that is why it becomes essential for him to comprehend it well.
  • To find the ratio in a judgement one looks at the abstract principles of law that have been applied to the facts of that particular case.


  1. B. SHAMA RAO V. UT OF PONDICHERRY CASE= In the case of B. shama rao v. UT of Pondicherry, it was determined that any judgement of a court that is binding as a precedent is based on the reasons and principles alluded to in that decision rather than the ultimate result or order of such decision. The ratio in judging a matter would emerge from the interpretation of legislation, natural justice principles, and common law standards.


Obiter is the term used for remarks made by the judge which are not binding on the parties to the case.

  • Statements that are not crucial and refer to hypothetical facts or issues of law not related to the case also form a part of obiter dicta in a judgement.
  • Unlike ratio decidendi , obiter dicta is not the subject of the judicial decision even if the statements made in this part are correct according to law.


  1. ARUM KUMAR AGARWAL V. STATE OF MADHYA PRADESH= In the case of Arum Kumar Agarwal v. State of Madhya Pradesh, the Supreme Court declared that the obiter dicta is a simple statement or remark given by the court to assist it in deciding the real matter before it. The simple casual comment or observation that was not relevant, significant, or necessary to resolve the question at hand  did not form part of the court’s ruling and had no authority value.
  2. MADHAV RAO JIVAJI RAO SCINDIA V. UNION OF INDIA= The Supreme Court declared in Madhav Rao Jivaji Scindia V. Union Of India that it is difficult to consider a word , paragraph or statement contained in a judgement as a thorough explanation of law even if it does not address the important legal concerns to the subject at hand. 


Literally means reason for decision.Literally means by the way.
It is the binding part in the precedent.They reinforce or strengthen the decision of the court.
It disposes off the case before the court.They do not dispose off the case before the court and are not binding.
This is a principle or proposition of law based on the material facts of the case.These are by the way statements made by a court in the course of judgement.
It comprises a group of fact situations with those of the instant case as minimum.It may be relied upon by advocate in subsequent cases as persuasive authority.


A decision of the higher courts like the Supreme Court and the High Courts generally sets a precedent for the Courts that are directly below them in terms of jurisdiction.

  • Ratio decidendi, because it sets an underlying principle in the judgement, forms a vital part in a judicial precedent.
  • Judicial precedents form one of the most noteworthy sources of law as they are often quoted and followed by the lawyers and judges during the course of arguing cases.
  • The precedents however differ in value depending on not only the hierarchy and strength of the bench but also depending on the reverence that a judge pronounces the judgement possesses in the legal fraternity.
  • The doctrine of precedent finds itself embedded in the Constitution of India by virtue of Article 141 which states that the law declared by the Supreme Court is binding on all the subordinate courts. 


The apex court in the case of Arun Kumar v. State of Madhya Pradesh held that obiter dicta is a mere observation or remark made by the Court, by way of aid, while deciding the actual issue before it. The mere casual statement or observation “which is not relevant, pertinent or essential to decide the issue in hand”, the Court said, did not form part of the judgement of the Court and had no authorities value.

Thus, it can be well concluded by mentioning that obiter dicta is an opinion not necessary to a judgement and is an observation as to the law made by a Judge in the course of a case, but not necessary to its decision and therefore of no binding effect; it is a ‘remark by the way’. It is the ratio decidendi which has the binding effect and the precedent value.

Precedents are major players in the legal field as they lessen the burden on courts to a larger extent. It helps the judges deciding the subsequent cases to understand the crux and jurisprudence behind a legal principle rather than applying it.Moreover, as the ratio decidendi is the part that has to be identified from the whole judgement while using a precedent , the legal students, lawyers , academicians and the judges would require skill in culling out the ratio and leaving behind general observations.


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