Understanding the Key Difference: Ratio Decidendi vs. Obiter Dicta in Indian Law


Ratio decidendi, or ratio, is the legal principle or rule that a court relies on to reach its decision in a particular case. It is binding on lower courts and sets out the legal principle that should guide future similar cases.

Obiter dicta, or obiter, are statements or opinions made by a judge in a decision that are not essential to the reasoning and do not form part of the ratio decidendi. Obiter dicta have persuasive influence, but are not binding on lower courts.

Here are some examples of ratio decidendi and obiter dicta in the Indian legal context:

Ratio decidendi:

  • In the case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala (1973), the Supreme Court held that the Parliament's power to amend the Constitution is not unlimited and that the basic structure of the Constitution cannot be amended. This is now a well-established principle of Indian constitutional law.
  • In the case of M.C. Mehta v. Union of India (1986), the Supreme Court held that the right to life includes the right to a clean and healthy environment. This is another important principle of Indian law that has been applied in numerous cases since then.

Obiter dicta:

  • In the case of Golak Nath v. State of Punjab (1967), the Supreme Court held that the Parliament's power to amend the Constitution is limited and that certain fundamental rights cannot be amended. However, this ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court in the Kesavananda Bharati case. The obiter dicta in the Golak Nath case is no longer binding on lower courts, but it is still considered to be a persuasive authority.
  • In the case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (1997), the Supreme Court laid down guidelines for the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace. However, the Court also made some observations about the availability of compensation to victims of sexual harassment, which were not essential to the decision in the case. These observations are considered to be obiter dicta.

It is important to note that the distinction between ratio decidendi and obiter dicta is not always clear-cut. In some cases, it may be difficult to determine whether a particular statement made by a judge is ratio or obiter. In such cases, the courts will consider the overall context of the decision and the judge's reasoning in order to determine whether the statement is binding or not.

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