I am aware that the scrupulous dignity of the law of England has not been accustomed to receive, as authorities, any thing less than the opinion delivered by judge upon the bench; the arguments of counsel in court, and their opinions at chambers, are placed among those extrajudicial and private matters that are wanting in the essential quality which should constitute a juridical authority. But it may be said, with due deference to the oracles which speak in our courts, that the opinions of lawyers have an advantage which those have not; they come down to us in the writing of the author, author – his own meaning conveyed in his own words ; the opinions of courts, on the other hand, are usually conveyed by standers-by; and the clearest judgement may, in after-time, be brought in question from the inaccuracy of contradictory reports.

John Reevs
John Reeves
20 November 1752 – 7 August 1829
History of the law of shipping and navigation, 1792, p.10.

From the immense multiplication of reported cases, many of them being of local or individual interest merely, many others, consisting more of the application than the settlement of any principle, and many of all kinds, no doubt, being both hastily considered, and questionably decided – it has come to pass that precedent, in its ancient and technical power, is hardly known to the courts at all; and that ‘a case’ – once so much sought for, so deferentially listened to, and so scrupulously followed—is now much less inquired after than ‘a principle’ and ‘a reason’.

John William Smith
John William Smith, Esq.
23 January 1809 – 17 December 1845
Smith’s Leading Cases, 1855, Vol.I, Preface to the fifth American edition.

The means of the study are a body of reports, of treatises, and of statutes, ..., extending back for six hundred years, and now increasing annually by hundreds. In these sibylline leaves are gathered the scattered prophecies of the past upon the cases in which the axe will fall. These are what properly have been called the oracles of the law.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
March 8, 1841 – March 6, 1935
The Path of the Law, 10 Harvard Law Review 457 (1897).

The fact is that the conclusions the Courts in such cases, though influenced by certain fundamental principles, have been little more than instances of cutting the Gordian knot - reasonable adjustments of the rights of parties in cases where complete justice was impracticable of attainment.

Lord Moulton
John Fletcher Moulton, Baron Moulton, GBE KCB QC PC
18 November 1844 – 9 March 1921
Sandeman v Tyzack & Branfoot Steamship Ltd [1913] AC 680 at 695.

It is obviously not always true that only the most recent cases are important. It is in this sense that legal history can fulfil an eminently practical function by helping to clarify the origins and stages of earlier and still relevant legal principles. This task becomes the more important, if only because the "modern" or "practical" lawyer will not do it.

To understand case-law … is to understand how it is that particular decisions by particular judges concerning particular parties to particular cases can be used in the construction of general rules applying to the actions and transactions of persons at large.

Neil MacCormick
Sir Donald Neil MacCormick, QC
27 May 1941 – 5 April 2009
Why Cases have Rationes and What These Are, Precedent in Law, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p.155