Obiter dictum

Obiter dictum

Obiter dictum (more usually used in the plural, obiter dicta) is Latin for a word said "by the way",[1] that is, a remark in a judgment that is "said in passing". It is a concept derived from English common law. For the purposes of judicial precedent, ratio decidendi is binding, whereas obiter dicta are persuasive only.


  • Significance of obiter dicta 1
  • Obiter dicta in the UK 2
  • Obiter dicta in the US 3
  • Dissenting judgments or opinions 4
  • Semble 5
  • Notes 6
  • External links 7

Significance of obiter dicta

A judicial statement can be ratio decidendi only if it refers to the crucial facts and law of the case. Statements that are not crucial, or which refer to hypothetical facts or to unrelated law issues, are obiter dicta. Obiter dicta (often simply dicta, or obiter) are remarks or observations made by a judge that, although included in the body of the court's opinion, do not form a necessary part of the court's decision. In a court opinion, obiter dicta include, but are not limited to, words "introduced by way of illustration, or analogy or argument".[2] Unlike ratio decidendi, obiter dicta are not the subject of the judicial decision, even if they happen to be correct statements of law. The so-called Wambaugh's Inversion Test provides that to determine whether a judicial statement is ratio or obiter, you should invert the argument, that is to say, ask whether the decision would have been different, had the statement been omitted. If so, the statement is crucial and is ratio; whereas if it is not crucial, it is obiter.

An example of an instance where a court opinion may include obiter dicta is where a court rules that it lacks jurisdiction to hear a case or dismisses the case on a technicality. If the court in such a case offers opinions on the merits of the case, such opinions may constitute obiter dicta. Less clear-cut instances of obiter dicta occur where a judge makes a side comment in an opinion to provide context for other parts of the opinion, or makes a thorough exploration of a relevant area of law. Another example would be where the judge, in explaining his or her ruling, provides a hypothetical set of facts and explains how he or she believes the law would apply to those facts.

University of Florida scholars Teresa Reid-Rambo and Leanne Pflaum explain the process by which obiter dicta may become binding. They write that:[3]

Obiter dicta in the UK

Under the doctrine of stare decisis, statements constituting obiter dicta are not binding, although in some jurisdictions, such as England and Wales, they can be strongly persuasive. For instance, in the High Trees case,[4] Judge Denning was not content merely to grant the landlord's claim, but added that had the landlord sought to recover the back rent from the war years, equity would have estopped him from doing so. Since the landlord did not wish to recover any back rent, Denning's addition was clearly obiter, yet this statement became the basis for the modern revival of promissory estoppel. Similarly, in Hedley Byrne & Co Ltd v Heller & Partners Ltd,[5] the House of Lords held, obiter, that negligent misstatement could give rise to a claim for pure economic loss, even though, on the facts, a disclaimer was effective in quashing any claim. Also, in Scruttons Ltd v Midland Silicones Ltd [1961],[6] Lord Reid proposed that while doctrine of privity of contract prevented the stevedores in this instance from benefiting from protection of an exemption clause, in future such protection could be effective if four guidelines (which he went on to list) were all met. In Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company [1893) [7][8] (a case whether a woman who had used a smoke ball as prescribed could claim the advertised reward after catching influenza), Bowen L.J. said:

This dog analogy is clearly obiter, as the case is about smoke balls, not lost dogs.

Obiter dicta in the US

Obiter dicta can be influential. One example in United States Supreme Court history is the 1886 case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. A passing remark from Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, recorded by the court reporter before oral argument, now forms the basis for the doctrine that juristic persons are entitled to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. Whether or not Chief Justice Waite's remark constitutes binding precedent is arguable, but subsequent rulings treat it as such.

In other instances, obiter dicta can suggest an interpretation of law that has no bearing on the case at hand but might be useful in future cases. The most notable instance of such an occurrence is the history of the famous Footnote 4 to United States v. Carolene Products Co. (1938), which while rejecting use of the Due Process Clause to block most legislation suggested that the clause might be applied to strike down legislation dealing with questions of "fundamental right". This obiter dictum is generally considered to have led to the doctrine of strict scrutiny (and subsequently intermediate scrutiny) in racial-, religious-, and sexual-discrimination cases, first articulated in Korematsu v. United States (1944).

Dissenting judgments or opinions

The arguments and reasoning of a dissenting judgment (as that term is used in the United Kingdom[9] and Australia[10]) or dissenting opinion (the term used in courts in the United States) also constitute obiter dicta. These, however, might also be cited should a court determine that its previous decision was in error, as when the United States Supreme Court cited Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s dissent in Hammer v. Dagenhart when it overturned Hammer in United States v. Darby Lumber Co.

In Shaw v DPP [1962] [11] a publisher of the "Ladies Directory" (a guide to London prostitutes) was convicted of "conspiracy to corrupt public morals". He appealed on the grounds that no such offence existed. The House of Lords dismissed the appeal, in effect creating a new crime. Viscount Simonds said: "...there remains in the Courts of Law a residual power ... to conserve the moral welfare of the State, and ... guard it against attacks which may be the more insidious because they are novel and unprepared for." In a dissenting judgment, Lord Reid said: "Parliament is the proper place, ... to [create new criminal laws]. Where Parliament fears to tread it is not for the courts to rush in." Subsequently, Lord Reid was the leading judge in Knuller v. DPP,[12] a case on obscene libel where a publisher was charged with "conspiracy to corrupt public morals". In this case, Lord Reid said he still disagreed with the decision in Knuller, but in the interests of certainty he would not overturn Knuller.


Akin to obiter is the concept of semble (Norman French for "it seems"). In Simpkins v Pays [1955],[13][14] a grandmother, granddaughter and a lodger entered into weekly competitions in the Sunday Empire News. Each week, all three women together made a forecast and each contributed to the cost of entry; but it was the grandmother's name that was on the coupon. The grandmother received £750 in prize money and refused to share it with the other two. The lodger successfully sued for one third of the prize money; but Sellers J added semble that the granddaughter should also get £250 (even though she was not a party to the action).


  1. ^ Black's Law Dictionary, p. 967 (5th ed. 1979).
  2. ^ Black's Law Dictionary p. 967 (5th ed. 1979).
  3. ^ Reid-Rambo, Teresa, and Leanne J. Pflaum. "Chapter 5: Sources of Law; Reading and Interpreting Cases." Legal Writing by Design: A Guide to Great Briefs and Memos. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic, 2013. 85. Print.
  4. ^ Central London Property Trust Ltd v High Trees House Ltd [1947] KB 130
  5. ^ Hedley Byrne & Co Ltd v Heller & Partners Ltd [1964] AC 465
  6. ^ Scruttons Ltd v Midland Silicones Ltd 1961]UKHL 4, [1962] AC 446
  7. ^ Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company [1893] 2 QB 256
  8. ^ Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company [1892] EWCA Civ 1
  9. ^ "Dissent". Law Mentor. Retrieved February 6, 2014. 
  10. ^ Coper, Michael; Blackshield, Tony; Williams, George (2007). The Oxford Companion to the High Court of Australia. Oxford University Press.  
  11. ^ Shaw v DPP [1962] AC 220 House of Lords
  12. ^ Knuller (Publishing, Printing and Promotions) Ltd. v. DPP [1973] A.C. 435 at 456, 56 Cr.App.R. 633 at 637
  13. ^ 'Simpkins v Pays' [1955] 1 WLR 975 Queen's Bench Division
  14. ^

External links

  • The dictionary definition of obiter dictum at Wiktionary