Difference Between Overruling and Reversing a Decision

Many times law students and lawyers use the term “Overrule” and “Reverse” interchangeably but they are not wholesomely the same. This mistake is done by even some judges when giving their Judgements in a case, but technically speaking there is a difference between overruling and Reversing as decision.

Overruling and Reversing are two legal terminologies which are synonymous but not conterminous. By this, I mean that they are similar to each other, but can’t be used in place of one another. As we continue, I am going to gently explain the differences between the two.

difference between overruling and Reversing a decision
difference between overruling and Reversing a decision

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Meaning of Overruling

Overruling is the setting aside of a precedent by a Court expressly deciding that such precedent should no longer be the controlling Law.

In simple words, Overruling is what a superior court does to a precedent that it expressly decides should no longer be the controlling Law, whether it is it’s precedent or the precedent of a Lower court. For example, where the Supreme Court rules that Oral Evidence is inadmissible in Court, and some years later, the same Supreme Court rules that Oral Evidence is admissible.

The Supreme Court has overruled it’s previously set precedent that Oral Evidence is inadmissible in Court and has therefore set a new precedent on the admissibility of an Oral Evidence.

A practice example of Overruling is seen in Oyeniran v Egbetola (1997) 5 NWLR (504) 122 where the Supreme Court held that the High Court did not have Jurisdiction over lands situate in non-urban areas of lands which were subject to customary right of occupancy. Three years later in the case of Adisa v Onyiwola (2000) 10 NWLR Pt.674 at 116, the same supreme Court overruled it’s precedent set in Oyeniran v Egbetola after it’s consideration that the precedent have failed to properly interpret the unlimited jurisdiction granted to the high court and as such that decision was wrong.

The consideration of the above practical example shows that in as much as the Supreme Court has power to overrule it’s previous decision, such power is subject to the grounds for overruling which was present in that case. To elucidate what the grounds for overruling are, the Supreme Court in Adebayo & ors v PDP & ors (2013) LPELR- 20342 (SC) held that the Supreme Court can only exercise it’s power to overrule it’s previous decision when the following circumstances are demonstrated in it’s earlier decision:

1. That the decision was wrong (given per incuriam)

2. That the decision was reached on a wrong principle

3. That the retention of the decision will constitute a perpetuation of injustice or that there was a breach of Justice in reaching the decision.

4. That the decision is contrary to public policy, will hinder development of Law and it’s judgement is a vehicle of injustice. See also Bronik motors ltd v Wema Bank 1983 NSCC 226.

The Court of Appeal also has the power of overruling and this power is exercisable in the following circumstances:

1. Where it’s earlier decision although not expressly overruled cannot stand with a decision of the Supreme court as seen in Osho v Foreign Finance Corporation (1991) 4 NWLR (PT 184) 157.

2. Where the decision was reached per incuriam and;

3. Where there are two conflicting decisions of the Court. See the case of CAN & Anor v Amaewhula & ors (2011).

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Meaning of Reversing

Reversing is a situation where an Appellant Court in the process of reviewing a case, finds errors presented in an Individual case sufficiently serious to warrant rendering the Judgement of the trial Court null and void and as such expunging the ruling of the trial Court upon which the result was based or returning the case to the trial court for a retrial if necessary.

According to the Black’s Law Dictionary, Reversing is the overturning of the ruling or judgement of a Lower court which is appealed against. For example, where I institute an action against Ebuka for the ownership of a Land, and I win the suit at the High Court, Ebuka feeling that the Judgement of the High Court was erroneous, Appeals against the Judgement to the Court of Appeal, and after consideration of our arguments, the Court of Appeal upholds the Appeal; ruling in Ebuka’s favour, and quashing the Judgement of the High Court (trial court), that is Reversing.

From the understanding of the meaning of these two legal terminologies, the difference that exists between OVERRULING and REVERSING is that REVERSING is a much narrow concept than OVERRULING. REVERSING deals with the overturning of a Judgement or Ruling of a Lower Court, whereas OVERRULING is the Overturning by a Superior Court of record of it’s Judicial Precedent or Precedent set by a Lower court.

Kindly watch the video below for more explanation

Also see: Advantages and disadvantages of An Unwritten constitution

Hope this article was helpful? Having said all these, I believe you now know the differences between reversing and overruling a decision and when to use them.