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In law, to distinguish a case means a court decides the holding or legal reasoning of a precedent case will not apply due to materially different facts between the two cases.[1] 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.[2]

The ruling made by the judge must be based not only on the evidence the judge is faced with, but the precedents in which he 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.


The English cases Balfour v. Balfour (1919) and Merritt v Merritt (1970) both involve a wife making a claim against her husband for breach of contract. The judge in Balfour decided that a claim could not be made because there was no intention to create legal regulations, there was no legally binding contract. However in Merritt v. Merritt, the judge decided that the facts of this case was sufficiently different in that, while the parties were husband and wife, the agreement was made after they had separated, in writing, thus distinguishing the case from Balfour.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Malleson, Kate and Moules, Richard. The Legal System. Oxford University Press. 2010. p.69
  2. ^ Lamond, Grant. "Precedent and Analogy in Legal Reasoning: 2.1 Precedents as laying down rules: 2.1.2 The practice of distinguishing". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 2006-06-20.