Legal Maxim :- Obiter Dicta
According to Article 141 of the Constitution of India, the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within the territory of India. In previous article we saw that only ratio decidendi of the judgment forms a binding precedent. Opposed to the ratio decidendi stand obiter dicta.
Singular form : Obiter Dictum.
Literally, this Latin maxim means “things said (dicta) by the way (obiter)”.
Judicial obiter dicta, that is to say, statements of law which go beyond the occasion, and lay down a rule that is irrelevant to the purpose in hand, or is stated by way of analogy merely, or is regarded by a later court as being unduly wide, on the other hand, are persuasive precedents.
A court may give various observations not precisely relevant to the issue before it. Such observations do not give the courts final decision on a live issue. So, they are not endowed with as much authority as the actual decision. They are without binding authority, but are nonetheless important. Not only do they help to rationalize the law, they serve to suggest solutions to problems not yet decided by the courts.[i]
Various definitions of the Maxim
The Wharton’s Law Lexicon defines the term “obiter dictum” as an opinion not necessary to a judgment; 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; a remark by the way.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines “obiter dictum” as a judicial comment made while delivering a judicial opinion, but one that is unnecessary to the decision in the case and therefore not precedential (although it may be considered persuasive).
P Ramanatha Aiyar defines the expression “observation” as a view, reflection; remark; statement; observed truth or facts; remarks in speech or writing in reference to something observed.
Halsbury’s Laws of England clarifies that whilst “Dicta” have no binding authority on another Court, they may have some persuasive efficacy. It also distinguishes “obiter dicta,” i.e., remarks of a judge from “judicial dicta” which are considered enunciations of the judge’s opinion on a point not arising for decision, which is therefore not part of ratio decidendi
Explanation of the Maxim
An opinion of law which is not necessary to the decision. A statement in a judgment which is not essential to the decision. Under the rule of precedent , an obiter dictum in a judgment of a superior court is not binding on a subordinate Court. In India, it has been held that the obiter dicta of the Supreme court is not binding on all other Courts.
“In the course of a suit many incidental questions arise indirectly connected with the main question for consideration, the observations on such questions whether casual or of collateral relevance are known as “obiter dicta” or simply “dicta”.[ii]
“ Strictly speaking an ‘ obiter dictum ’ is a remark made or opinion expressed by a judge, in his decision upon a cause, ‘ by the way ’ — that is, incidentally or collaterally, and not directly upon the question before the Court; or it is any statement of law enunciated by the judge or Court merely by way of illustration, argument, analogy, or suggestion… In the common speech of lawyers, all such extrajudicial expressions of legal opinion are referred to as ‘ dicta, ’ or ‘ obiter dicta, ’ these two terms being used interchangeably. ”[iii]
We can simply put it as an observation by the Court on a legal question suggested in a case before it but not arising in such manner as to require a decision.[iv]m
Binding force of Supreme Court Obiter
When it came to the binding force of its own decisions on the High Courts, an early view adopted by the Court was that as the Supreme Court was the highest judicial tribunal in the country it was necessary in the interest of uniformity and judicial discipline that all the High Courts must accept as binding the obiter dicta of the Supreme Court in the same spirit as the High Courts accepted the obiter dicta of the Privy Council.[v]
Such obiter dicta even in a dissenting judgment are entitled to high respect, especially if there is no direct decision to conclude the question at issue.[vi]
In State of Gujarat v Vora Fiddali Badruddin Mithibarwala,[vii] Hedge J. observed:
Every observation of this court is no doubt, entitled to weight but an obiter cannot take the place of the ratio. Judges are not oracles. In the very nature of things, it is not possible to give the same attention to incidental matters as is given to the actual issues arising for decision. Further much depends on the way the case is presented to them.
Observations by the way, obiter dicta, are without binding authority, but are nonetheless important; not only do they help to rationalize the law but they serve to suggest solutions to problems not yet decided by the courts.
[i] B. Sorabji v. ITO,(2005) 95 ITD 540
[ii] Marta Silva v. Piedade Cardozo AIR 1969 Goa 94
[iii] William M. Lile et al., Brief Making and the Use of Law Books 304 (3ed. 1914).
[iv] Director of Settlements A.P. v. M.R. Apparao(2002) 4 SCC 638[iv]
[v] Mohandas Issaradas v AN Sattanathan AIR 1955 Bom 113
[vi] Ashok Leyland Ltd v State of Madras AIR 1957 Mad 263
[vii] AIR 1964 SC 1043