Courts in England and Wales, not bound by Privy Council decisions

Supreme Court of United Kingdom: Considering the issue regarding the status of decisions by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) in the courts of England and Wales, a nine-Judge Bench headed by Lord Neuberger (President) unanimously specified the circumstances in which the JCPC can decide that the earlier House of Lords or Supreme Court decision was wrong. The Court held that unless there is a decision of a superior court to the contrary effect, a court in England and Wales can be expected to follow a decision of the JCPC, but there is no question of it being bound to do so as a matter of precedent. There is also no doubt that a court should not follow a decision of the JCPC, if it is inconsistent with the decision of another court which would otherwise be binding on it.

The present appeal came up before the Court in view of conflicting decisions of a House of Lords case of Gregory v. Portsmouth City Council, [2000] 1 AC 419, and a JCPC case of Crawford Adjusters v. Sagicor General Insurance, [2014] AC 366, on the issue that whether a claim in malicious prosecution could be brought in relation to civil proceedings.

Perusing the issue, the Court examined the hierarchy of the English Courts stating that on legal issues Circuit Judges are bound by decisions of High Court Judges, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court; High Court Judges are bound by decisions of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court; and the Court of Appeal is bound by decisions of the Supreme Court. it was observed that, “In a common law system the doctrine of precedent is fundamental. Decisions on points of law by more senior courts have to be accepted by more junior courts. Otherwise, the law becomes anarchic.” The Court also highlighted an exception that if in an appeal to the JCPC that involves an issue of English law on which a previous decision of the House of Lords, Supreme Court or Court of Appeal is challenged, the members of the JCPC, if they think it appropriate can decide that the previous decision was wrong, and also can expressly direct that domestic courts should treat their decision as representing the law of England and Wales. [Willers v. Joyce, [2016] 3 WLR 534 : [2016] UKSC 44, decided on 20.07.2016]

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