Precedent and Fairness

Legal Theory (Forthcoming)

22 Pages Posted: 18 Oct 2021 Last revised: 15 Jul 2023

See all articles by Adam Perry

Adam Perry

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law

Date Written: October 14, 2021


Courts in common law systems decide cases as they decided similar cases in the past - even if they believe they decided those past cases wrongly. What, if anything, justifies this practice? I defend two main claims. The first is that fairness favors treating like cases alike if that means treating them correctly. The second is that a court is about as likely to decide an instant case correctly as it was to decide an earlier case correctly. Together, these claims tell us that departing from and following precedent are equally likely to yield a correct decision, whereas following precedent may also yield a fair decision. Following precedent is the dominant option. Fairness therefore provides a reason for the practice of precedent. While that conclusion is not original, my path to that conclusion is, as far as I know, novel.

Keywords: precedent, fairness, legal reasoning, overruling, distinguishing

Suggested Citation

Perry, Adam, Precedent and Fairness (October 14, 2021). Legal Theory (Forthcoming), Available at SSRN: or

Adam Perry (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Faculty of Law ( email )

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