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When a high court rules on a matter, when does the precedent take effect? Say a case is in progress in a lower court which asks the same question as what was just decided on the same day in the high court. I know most cases span months sometimes. Do whole cases start right over from scratch when the high court sets a new precedent? Do cases pause to wait for an answer? What if two cases simultaneously ask the same question?

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tl;dr: Precedent takes effect on the decision date.

You didn't list a jurisdiction, so I'll give a U.S. example. In Citizens United v. FEC (U.S. 2010), there are three dates listed in the header:

  1. Argued March 24, 2009
  2. Reargued September 9, 2009
  3. Decided January 21, 2010

Precedent attaches to a decision date. That's also why we see 2010 in the case citation above. However, it's important to note that not all precedent is binding. A decision made in the 7th Circuit isn't binding on a district court in the 2d Circuit, and vice versa.

As to the impact on cases in progress, the party that is more favorably impacted by the change can bring it to the judge's attention. The outcome will depend on the a) whether the decision is relevant, b) whether the decision is binding, and c) how far along the case at bar happens to be. Note: most U.S. cases never go to trial. It is (relatively) lower stakes to incorporate new legal theories in the pleading or discovery stage.

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    Sometimes the courts will also decide their precedent is retroactive and will make it effective for all cases. Usually the precedent becomes effective for all cases pending on or after the date of the decision. – Viktor Nov 7 '15 at 14:33
  • Well, the decision of the precedent takes effect whenever the acts that were in dispute did - judicial decisions are necessarily retrospective. Judges are said to find the law as it always was - even when they overturn earlier decisions, they generally say that the previous ruling erred in some way, unless the change is due to some kind of legislative act. – jimsug Nov 11 '15 at 3:21

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