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My question concerns the principle that constitutional courts should not decide what is not strictly necessary for deciding the case at hand. What happens if, say the Supreme Court, made well reasoned and detailed (but unduly far-reaching) conclusions about a legal question deciding which was not at all necessary for the case at hand ?

Do these circumstances alone suffice to argue that these conclusions (insofar as they relate to the question which was not before the court) do not form binding precedents when the legal question arises before a High Court in a future case? I am attaching a pic from the book Constitutional Law of India Vol-II by H.M. Seervai.

This question is in context of India, but I would appreciate answers from other jurisdictions as well.

from page 1675 of the referred book

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  • I edited your title as the original phrasing presented "are not necessary" as nonrestrictive, which changes the meaning. – Acccumulation Apr 6 at 23:42
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India does not have a constitutional court, which is a term usually reserved for a court which has exclusively jurisdiction over constitutional questions and usually limited to constitutional questions.

India has a (mostly) unitary court system capped by the Supreme Court of India, but its jurisdiction is not limited to constitutional questions, and it is not the only court in India that can interpret and apply the Constitution of India.

When a component of a decision decided by the Supreme Court of India is not necessary for resolution of the case before it, that portion of the decision is called dicta and is not binding precedent although it is still persuasive authority before lower courts as it is a good indication of how the Supreme Court of India would resolve a case in future litigation. The same distinction between portions of a ruling that are binding precedents and those that are mere dicta also applies in all other appellate courts in a common law legal system such as India's.

Also, a portion of a court decision is not dicta merely because it is far reaching. A binding precedent can be broad or narrow in the deciding court's discretion. What makes "dicta" distinct is that it is literally "off topic" and not literally controlled by the potentially broad principles used to decide the case before the Court. What determines whether a part of the ruling is "off topic" is the exact scope of the issue that the court states that it is resolving.

For example, if the Court states that it is resolving the question of "due process in an admiralty case" and remarks on due process in an ordinary non-admiralty case, the later remarks are dicta. But if the court states that it is resolving the question of "due process in a legal proceeding" then the same statement is not dicta.

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In the legal practice of the and the comments in a court opinion which are not essential to the result reached by the court are not, strictly speaking, binding precedent. Such comments are known as Obiter dicta, or just dicta (singular dictum), literally "said by the way". They are often considered to be persuasive, particularly if the court or the judge has a high reputation, but they are not binding precedent. I suspect the same is true in the legal system of India but I am not sure.

This is different from the principle that an appeals court should avoid deciding issues not necessarily presented by a case. That principle is a standard for what many experts consider good practice by appeals courts, particularly on constitutional issues, but it is not mandatory, and courts do not always follow it.

In particular the US Supreme Court sometimes decides cases on narrow grounds, and sometimes, particularly after several narrow decisions have inclined in the same direction, will make a broad decision on a major point. Such cases as Loving vs Virginia, Brown vs Board of Education, and Barnette vs West Virginia are considered landmark cases in significant part because they declared broad principles, when the cases might have been decided more narrowly. On the other hand, cases such as Dred Scott vs Sandford are remembered negatively for being over-bold and on the wrong side of history.

I am not sure what the traditions of the courts of India are on this matter.

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    Thanks! This is very helpful. A follow up question: would such comments be obiter and non-binding even if they run into several pages of detailed legal analysis? – Ishan Mata Apr 6 at 0:24
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    I am aware that stray comments would be non-binding, but don't know if it is true of long and detailed analysis as well. – Ishan Mata Apr 6 at 0:25
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    @Ishan Mata at least in the US system, it doesn't, in theory, make any difference hope long and detailed dicta are, if they are not needed to reach the decision, they are not binding. However, a long and detailed analysis from a respected judge may be so persuasive, even if technically dicta, that other courts follow it and it may be treated as binding in effect. – David Siegel Apr 6 at 1:27
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    @DavidSiegel I suppose that the answer "binding or not" depends on the function of the particular judical utterance within a decision. A court may decide -- to pick an unlikely example -- once and for all: "Any challenge to a tax always and automatically leads to a temporary injunction", regardless of the specific circumstances. The court can do so even if such a broad ruling was completely unnecessary in the case at hand. That's different from deciding on narrow grounds while giving general hints on the side. Typically courts try to rule narrowly, but that's not a legal obligation. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 6 at 16:50

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