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In law, to distinguish a case means to contrast the facts of the case before the court from the facts of a case of precedent where there is an apparent similarity. By successfully distinguishing a case, the holding or legal reasoning of the earlier case will either not apply or will be limited. There are two formal constraints on the later court: the factors in the ratio of the earlier case must be retained in formulating the ratio of the later case, and the ruling in the later case must still support the result reached in the precedent case.
Whether a case is successfully distinguished often looks to whether the distinguished facts are material to the matter.
The ruling made by the judge must be based around not only the evidence they are faced with, but the precedents in which they must follow. This means that a precedent will be dealt to a case with similar facts, in which a decision can then be distinguished based upon this.
See also 
- "Precedent and Analogy in Legal Reasoning: 2.1 Precedents as laying down rules: 2.1.2 The practice of distinguishing". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006-06-20.
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