Lists of landmark court decisions
Landmark court decisions, in present day common law legal systems, establish precedents that determine a significant new legal principle or concept, or otherwise substantially affect the interpretation of existing law. “Leading case” is commonly used in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth jurisdictions instead of “landmark case” as used in the United States.
In Commonwealth countries, a reported decision is said to be a leading decision when it has come to be generally regarded as settling the law of the question involved. In 1914, Canadian jurist Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy said "a 'leading case' [is] one that settles the law upon some important point."
A leading decision may settle the law in more than one way. It may do so by:
- Distinguishing a new principle that refines a prior principle, thus departing from prior practice without violating the rule of stare decisis;
- Establishing a “test” (that is, a measurable standard that can be applied by courts in future decisions), such as the Oakes test (in Canadian law) or the Bolam test (in English law).
- Sometimes, with regard to a particular provision of a written constitution, only one court decision has been made. By necessity, until further rulings are made, this ruling is the leading case. For example, in Canada, “[t]he leading case on voting rights and electoral boundary readjustment is Carter. In fact, Carter is the only case of disputed electoral boundaries to have reached the Supreme Court.” The degree to which this kind of leading case can be said to have "settled" the law is less than in situations where many rulings have reaffirmed the same principle.
Landmark decisions in Australia
- Main articles: List of High Court of Australia cases and List of Judicial Committee of the Privy Council cases
- In 1948 the High Court of Australia found that the Chifley government's legislation to nationalise Australia's private banks was unconstitutional.
- In 1951 the High Court of Australia found that Robert Menzies' attempts to ban the Communist Party of Australia were unconstitutional.
- In Eddie Mabo & Ors v The State of Queensland (No.2) invalidated the declaration of terra nullius.
Landmark decisions in Canada
- Main articles: List of Supreme Court of Canada cases and List of Judicial Committees of the Privy Council cases
There is no universally agreed-to list of "leading decisions" in Canada.
One indication, however, as to whether a case is widely regarded as being "leading" is its inclusion of the ruling in one or more of the series of compilations prepared over the years by various authors. One of the earlier examples is Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy's Leading Cases in Canadian Constitutional Law, published in 1914. More recently, Peter H. Russell and a changing list of collaborators have published a series of books, including:
- Leading Constitutional Decisions (first published 1965, with several later editions);
- Federalism and the Charter: Leading Constitutional Decisions (published in 1989, co-edited by Russell, F.L. Morton and Rainer Knopff);
- The Court and the Charter: Leading Cases (published in 2008, co-edited by Russell, Morton, Knopff, Thomas Bateman and Janet Hiebert); and
- The Court and the Constitution: Leading Cases (published in 2008, co-edited by Russell, Morton, Knopff, Bateman and Hiebert).
Decisions in leading cases Canada are have usually been made by the Supreme Court of Canada. Prior to the abolition of appeals of Supreme Court decisions in the 1940s, most landmark decisions were made by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.
|Decision||Court||Date & citation||Subject matter||Principle or rule established by the court's decision||Full text|
|Robertson and Rosetanni v. R.||Supreme Court|| S.C.R. 651||Canadian Bill of Rights||Establishes that the Bill of Rights is not concerned with rights in any abstract sense, but rather with the more modest objective of prohibiting restrictions on rights as they existed in Canada at the time the Bill of Rights was enacted.|||
|re Anti-Inflation Act||Supreme Court|| 2 S.C.R. 373||Use of extraneous material in court decisions.||Established that it is acceptable for Canadian courts to examine historical material in addition to the text of the relevant statute.|||
|Patriation Reference||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 753||Constitutional conventions||Establishes that constitutional conventions are not legally binding.|||
|Quebec v. Blaikie||Supreme Court|| 2 SCR 1016||Status of English & French in Quebec legislation.||Established that all laws and regulations of the province of Quebec, as well as all courts and tribunals, must treat French and English with absolute equality.|||
|R. v. Sparrow||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 1075||Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights)||Establishes that aboriginal rights that pre-exist the Constitution Act, 1982 cannot be infringed without justification.||.|
|Delgamuukw v. British Columbia||Supreme Court|| 3 S.C.R. 1010||Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights)|||
|R. v. Marshall||Supreme Court|| 3 S.C.R. 456||Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights)||Establishes that aboriginal treaty rights are subject to Canadian law, but not to provincial licensing systems.||R v Marshall (No 1)R v Marshall (No 2)|
|Tsilhqot'in v. British Columbia||Supreme Court|| 2 S.C.R. 257||Constitution Act, 1982, section 35(1) (Aboriginal rights)||Established land title for the Tsilhqot'in First Nation.|||
|Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act||Supreme Court|| 2 S.C.R. 486||Charter of Rights, section 7 (Legal rights)||Establishes that laws which impose prison sentences for ”absolute liability” offences (i.e. offences for which intent or negligence need not be shown) are invalidated by section 7 of the Charter.|||
|R. v. Morgentaler||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 30||Charter of Rights, section 7 (Legal rights), abortion||The abortion provision in the Criminal Code violated the right of women, under section 7 of the Charter to “security of the person.”|||
|Gosselin v. Quebec||Supreme Court|| 4 S.C.R. 429||Charter of Rights, section 7 (Legal rights)||Establishes that section 7 does not mandate positive rights to welfare benefits, but that “a positive obligation to sustain life, liberty or security of the person may be made out” under different circumstances than those of the instant case.|||
|Andrews v. Law Society of British Columbia||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 143||Charter of Rights, section 15 (Equality rights)||Establishes the “Andrews test” for determining whether Charter-protected equality rights have been violated.|||
|Hunter v. Southam||Supreme Court|| 2 S.C.R. 145||Charter of Rights, section 8 (Legal rights)||Establishes that the Charter ought to be interpreted purposively.|||
|R. v. Feeney||Supreme Court|| 2 S.C.R. 13||Constitution Act, 1982, section 8 (Procedural rights)||Establishes that the police cannot enter a home without a search warrant.|||
|Egan v. Canada||Supreme Court|| 2 S.C.R. 513||Charter of Rights, section 15(1) (Equality rights)||Establishes that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited under section 15(1).|||
|Law v. Canada||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 497||Charter of Rights, section 15(1) (Equality rights)||Establishes the “Law test” for identifying Charter-prohibited discrimination.|||
|Canada (Attorney General) v. Hislop||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 429||Charter of Rights, section 15 (Equality rights)||Establishes that Charter-mandated rights come into existence, for purposes of applicability, only from the moment that their existence is determined by the court. Charter rights are not “discovered” in the sense proposed by Blackstone, and therefore are not retroactive.|||
|Ford v. Quebec (A.G.)||Supreme Court|| 2 S.C.R. 712||Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression)|||
|Irwin Toy Ltd. v. Quebec (A.G.)||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 927||Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression)|||
|R. v. Zundel||Supreme Court|| 2 S.C.R. 731||Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression)|||
|R. v. Sharpe||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 45||Charter of Rights, section 2(b) (Freedom of expression)|||
|Mahe v. Alberta||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 342||Charter of Rights, section 23 (Minority-language education rights)||Establishes that section 23 of the Charter is intended to be remedial, and therefore should be given a large and liberal interpretation.|||
|R. v. Oakes||Supreme Court|| 1 S.C.R. 103||Charter of Rights, section 1 (limits on rights protected elsewhere in the Charter)||Establishes the "Oakes test" determining whether laws placing limits on Charter-protected rights are permitted under section 1 of the Charter.|||
|Meiorin case||Supreme Court|| 3 S.C.R. 3||Charter of Rights, section 15(1) (Equality rights)||Establishes the “Meiorin test” to be used in applying human rights legislation.||.|
|Auton v. British Columbia||Supreme Court|| 3 S.C.R. 657||Charter of Rights, section 15 (Equality rights)||Establishes that section 15 of the Charter does not create a positive right to receive government services.|||
Landmark decisions in New Zealand
- Main articles: List of cases of the Supreme Court of New Zealand and List of Judicial Committee of the Privy Council cases
Decisions in leading cases in New Zealand were made by the Court of Appeal of New Zealand before the establishment of the Supreme Court of New Zealand, although historically some have been made by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.
- In 1976 the Wellington Supreme Court in Fitzgerald v Muldoon and Others held that Prime Minister Robert Muldoon had purported to suspend the Bill of Rights 1689.
- In 1987 the Court of Appeal in New Zealand Maori Council v Attorney-General recognised the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi.
Landmark decisions in the United Kingdom
- Main articles: List of House of Lords cases
Decisions in leading cases in the United Kingdom have usually been made by the House of Lords, or more recently the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom; in Scotland by the Court of Session or High Court of Justiciary; in England and Wales by the Court of Appeal or the High Court of Justice of England and Wales. Some twentieth century examples involved contributions from the late Lord Denning.
- Darcy v Allein  77 Eng. Rep. 1260 (King’s Bench) (most widely known as The Case of Monopolies): establishing that it was improper for any individual to be allowed to have a monopoly over a trade.
- The Case of Prohibitions (1607) (Court of Common Pleas)
- Bushel's Case (1670) (Court of Common Pleas): establishing the principle that a judge cannot coerce a jury to convict.
- Entick v Carrington  19 Howell's State Trials 1030: establishing the civil liberties of individuals and limiting the scope of executive power.
- Tulk v Moxhay (1848) 41 ER 1143: establishing that in certain cases a restrictive covenant can "run with the land" (i.e. bind a future owner) in equity.
- Hadley v Baxendale (1854) 9 Exch. 341 (Court of Exchequer): establishing the extent to which a party in breach of contract is liable for the damages.
- Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330: establishing a doctrine of strict liability for some inherently dangerous activities.
- Foakes v Beer  9 A.C. 605: establishing the rule that prevents parties from discharging a contractual obligation by part performance.
- The Moorcock 14 P.D. 64 (1889): establishing the concept of implied terms in contract law.
- Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company  1 QB 256: establishing the test for formation of a contract.
- Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre v Selfridge and Co. Ltd.  A.C. 847: confirming privity of contract: only a party to a contract can be sued on it.
- A-G v De Keyser's Royal Hotel Ltd  AC 508: establishing that the Crown has no right under the royal prerogative to take possession of an owner's land in connection with the defence of the realm without paying compensation, and that a statute in force may prevail to regulate the exercise of an existing prerogative power.
- Donoghue v Stevenson  S.C.(H.L.) 31: Lord Atkin established the "neighbour principle" as the foundation of the modern Scots delict (English tort) of negligence. This case used a wide ratio decidendi, which was held later as obiter, but still established the law of tort.
- Central London Property Trust Ltd v High Trees House Ltd  K.B. 130: establishing the doctrine of promissory estoppel.
- Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation  1 KB 223: establishing the concept of Wednesbury unreasonableness for judicial review.
- Hedley Byrne v Heller  2 All E.R. 575: establishing liability for pure economic loss, absent any contract, arising from a negligent statement.
- Fagan v Metropolitan Police Commissioner  1 QB 439: a leading case illustrating the requirement for concurrence of actus reus (Latin for "guilty act") and mens rea (Latin for "guilty mind") in order to establish a criminal offence.
- Ramsay v IRC  A. C. 300: establishing a doctrine that ignores for tax purposes the purported effect of a pre-ordained series of transactions into which there are inserted steps that have no commercial purpose apart from the avoidance of a liability to tax.
- Furniss v Dawson  A.C. 474: establishing that tax can be levied on the results of a composite transaction, even if steps that are only there for the purpose of avoiding tax do not cancel each other out.
- Factortame case (1990): the European Court of Justice ruled that the House of Lords was required to suspend an Act of Parliament that infringed EC law.
- R v R : the House of Lords invalidated the defence of marital rape to reflect a changing view in society.
Landmark decisions in the United States
Landmark cases in the United States come most frequently (but not exclusively) from the United States Supreme Court. United States Courts of Appeals may also make such decisions, particularly if the Supreme Court chooses not to review the case, or adopts the holding of the court below. Although many cases from state supreme courts are significant in developing the law of that state, only a few are so revolutionary that they announce standards that many other state courts then choose to follow.
- List of European Court of Human Rights judgments
- List of European Court of Justice rulings
- List of International Court of Justice cases
- Meaning of leading case in the English Dictionary
- A. W. B. Simpson, Leading Cases in the Common Law, Clarendon Press, 1996 
- Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy, Leading Cases in Canadian Constitutional Law. Toronto: Carswell, 1914, p. v.
- Michael Pal and Sujit Choudry, “Is Every Ballot Equal? Visible Minority Vote Dilution in Canada”, IRPP Choices vol. 13, no. 1 (January 2007), p. 14.
- Mabo v Queensland (1989) 166 CLR 186 AustLill
- Supreme Court Landmark Decisions — Cornell Law School
- Links to Additional Information on Supreme Court Landmarks Decisions — Constitutional Rights Foundation