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In Law, what is a First Impression?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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In law, a first impression is a case on a subject that has not entered the court system before, making it impossible to refer to older legal decisions for guidance in determining a fair judgment. In the decision, the judge will set a precedent other courts will follow or challenge to establish the way matters of that nature are handled in the future. When judges work on such cases, they take special care in deliberations and their written opinions to make sure they establish a clear and reasonable precedent for other courts to use as a model.

Commonly, a first impression involves a new law or rule that has never been tested in the courts before, or a situation so unusual that courts may not have encountered it. Legislators usually try to keep pace with events in their societies, but sometimes they fail to anticipate cultural shifts. For example, with the rise in the use of assisted reproductive technology came a number of tangled legal cases on topics like surrogacy and donation of eggs or sperm. The judges in these cases had no laws or prior cases to rely on when making decisions.

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In a case of first impression, or primae impressionis, the judge first needs to establish that the case really does handle a subject not encountered in court before. Judges may ask clerks to conduct research to identify similar cases. In the course of their research, they may find related cases a judge can use in formulating an opinion. Clerks can also help the judge research the laws surrounding the case in order to render a fair interpretation.

With a first impression case, the judge does not have a legal authority to turn to for guidance when making a decision. She must rely on general legal principles including the basic tenets of the legal system in her nation. Judges in the United States, for example, may rely on interpretation of the Constitution and other key legal documents to issue decisions in alignment with the general legal values of the United States.

The opinion in a first impression case will be read carefully by judges, attorneys, and lawmakers. If the parties to the case appeal to a higher court, the judge's opinion will have its first test in the form of an evaluation by an appellate judge. The judge can uphold it, confirming that it is legally sound, or strike it down, indicating that the conclusions reached in the opinion are incorrect. As similar cases work their way through the legal system, judges and attorneys will refer to the opinion in the case of first impression when formulating arguments and opinions.

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