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1. When used in reference to a judge’s ruling in a court case, arbitrary means based on individual discretion rather than a fair application of the law. For example, finding someone guilty of a crime simply because they have a beard would be an arbitrary decision. However, a discretionary decision is not always arbitrary. Although, the law sometimes gives judges discretionary powers, it also requires them to act within boundaries when applying general principles of law to the facts of a particular case. As a result, a judge cannot act in disregard of the evidence or ignore established precedent. Such disregard would be arbitrary.

2. Historically, arbitrary has also been used to describe the actions of the executive and legislative branches. The concern of arbitrariness arose in part because chancellors’ broad discretionary powers were often accused of being arbitrary. In a democracy, arbitrariness cannot be allowed; but discretion is sometimes allowed by law.

[Last updated in May of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]