Obiter Dicta

The Latin term obiter dicta means “things said by the way,” and is generally used in law to refer to an opinion or non-necessary remark made by a judge. In a legal ruling, made by a higher court, the actual decision becomes binding precedent. Remarks about such things as how the court came to its decision are not binding, and it is to these that the term refers. To explore this concept, consider the following obiter dicta definition.

Definition of Obiter Dicta

Pronounced

ōb-i-ter dik-tah

Noun

  1. Incidental remarks, observations, or opinions articulated by a judge.
  2. Supplementary opinions by a judge that is not essential to the actual decision.

Origin

1782    Latin (“things said by the way”)

What is Obiter Dicta

When a written judicial opinion is made, it contains two elements: (1) ratio decidendi, and (2) obiter dicta. Ratio decidendi is the Latin term meaning “the reason for the decision,” and refers to statements of the critical facts and law of the case. These are vital to the court’s decision itself. Obiter dicta are additional observations, remarks, and opinions on other issues made by the judge. These often explain the court’s rationale in coming to its decision and, while they may offer guidance in similar matters in the future, they are not binding.

In reading a court’s decision, obiter dicta may be recognized by such words as “introduced by way of analogy,” or “by way of illustration.” Obiter dicta may be as short as a brief aside or a hypothetical example, or as long as a thorough discussion of relevant law. In either case, the additional information is given to provide context for the judicial opinion.

Determining Obiter Dicta or Ratio Decidendi

It is not always obvious when reading a court’s written decision what is obiter dicta, and what is ratio decidendi, yet this is crucial to knowing what portions of the decision are binding precedent. To aid in this determination, American legal scholar Eugene Wambaugh proposed what is now referred to as Wambaugh’s Inversion Test. This test holds that the following question be asked about suspect portions: would the decision have been different if the statement had been omitted. If the answer is “yes,” then that statement is a critical part of the decision, and is therefore ratio decidendi.

For example:

Julia, who purchased an Acme washer and dryer set, was disappointed when only a month later the washing machine stopped working. Having been told that the appliance had a one-year warranty against manufacturer defects, she attempted to make a claim to have her washing machine repaired or replaced.

The Acme company denied her claim, saying that she had not responded with a message saying she had accepted the company’s terms and conditions for warranty service, and she was therefore not eligible. Julia filed a civil lawsuit in her attempt to hold the company responsible to fulfill the warranty.

In the court’s decision, which was rendered in favor of Julia, the court explains:

“If I lost my dog, and advertised that I would pay $1,000 to anyone who brought the dog to my home, could I deny the reward to the neighbor who found and returned him, on the basis that he hadn’t written to me formally accepting my offer? Of course not.”

This case is about a defective appliance, and its warranty, not a dog. The court’s analogy is obiter dicta, as it is not crucial to the court’s ruling, but given only by way of explanation. If the dog analogy had been left out, the court’s ruling would be exactly the same.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Binding Precedent – A rule or principle established by a court, which other courts are obligated to follow.
  • Judicial Opinion – A statement prepared by a court or judge announcing the decision at the end of a trial.

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