Prospective Overruling Unravelled

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Judges have a dual role: they decide cases and they determine the law. These functions are conventionally understood to be intertwined: adjudication leads to case law, and disputes over judge-made laws lead to adjudication. Because judgments involve the resolution of past disputes, judge-made law is retrospective. The retrospective nature of judicial law-making can seem to work an injustice in hard cases. It appears unfair and inefficient for novel judicial decisions to apply to conduct occurring prior to the date judgment is handed down. A proposed solution is to separate the law-making and adjudicatory functions of courts. This is the technique of “prospective overruling”. Utilising this technique, courts seek to change the law prospectively for future cases, while continuing to decide past disputes under the “old” legal rule that was thought to apply at the time those disputes arose. This article challenges the claims that the exceptional juridical technique of prospective overruling is justified by values of stability, reliance, efficiency, dignity, and equality. These values, when properly understood, actually support rather than undermine the retrospectivity of judge-made law. Prospective overruling is an injudicious instrument.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-53
JournalCivil Justice Quarterly
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

(2022) 41:1 CJQ 29-53

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