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ENGLISH LEGAL SYSTEM: SOURCES OF LAW - CASE LAW (5)

In Part 4 of this series, we suggested an approach which you could take to try to help you identify the ratio decidendi ( the ratio) of a case within the judgment. We then gave you some facts of a real case to look at and asked you to think about what you thought were the material facts of that case, given the issue. The name of the case is Fisher v Bell. [1] It is a very famous English contract law case, which you will study at undergraduate level during the first year of your law degree.


Identifying the material facts of a case is the first step to identifying the ratio. There were several facts in the case. For example, the fact that it was a music shop, the fact it was around 3.15pm when the police officer looked in the shop window, and so on. Not all these facts are material, however. The main thing is to try and identify what you think are the material facts. You might have thought the following were material:


· that it was a shop (where members of the public could walk in and possibly buy things)

· the fact there was a knife in the shop window

· the fact that there was a ticket behind the knife saying ‘Ejector knife’ and ‘4 shillings’ (the price).


Be careful, however. Do not confuse material facts with issues of law at this stage. Remember: the law is applied to the material facts. You may also have asked whether the knife was the kind of knife to which the statute applied. It was.


Once you have identified what you think are the material facts, you can move to stage 2: the issues that the court needed to decide. Remember: when you do this, it helps to use the conjunction ‘whether’. In this case, the issue that the court needed to decide was:

whether displaying an ejector knife in a shop window was an offer to sell the knife or simply an ‘invitation to treat’.


If it was an offer to sell the knife, then Mr Bell would be guilty of an offence under the statute. If it was not an offer to sell, but an invitation to treat, it would not be an offence. Here is the heart of the case and how the court answer the ‘stage 2’ question is what we are trying to find.


In order to decide the case, the judge – Lord Parker – had to look at any other previous decisions in similar cases. If there was a previous case in which an ejector knife had been put on display in a shop window with a ticket showing the price, and establishing that this was an ‘offer for sale’, the court would have been bound by that decision on the basis of stare decisis. There was no previous case with precisely the same facts which decided this point.

However, Lord Parker said:


“It is perfectly clear that according to the ordinary law of contract the display of an article with a price on it in a shop window is merely an invitation to treat. It is in no sense an offer for sale, the acceptance of which constitutes a contract.”


From this, we can see the ‘binding element’ in the judgment – namely, that the display of an article in a shop window is not an ‘offer’ (an essential element in the formation of a contract) but an ‘invitation to treat’.


As we said in Part 4 of this series, it is always a useful exercise to look at stage 4 and ask yourself whether the court may have reached a different conclusion if slightly different facts had applied. For example, what if there had been no price ticket behind the knife? Would that have made a difference? In this case, obviously not. But can you think of any additional fact that might have changed the decision?


Finding the ratio decidendi of a decision is not always easy, as we have said before. However, given that the principle of stare decisis applies, it is essential to try to identify it.

Not all parts of a judgment are binding, however. In the next part in this series, we will look at parts of a judgment that are not binding, but are still important.



[1] Fisher v Bell [1961] 1 QB 394


© Cambridge Legal English Academy 2021

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