Diary of a 1L
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Thursday, May 27, 2004
7:56 PM

Efficiency v. Fairness

We spend a lot of time in law school talking about how efficiency and fairness are at odds. Pretty much everybody has a good idea of why fairness is so great, but what about efficiency? I need to spend a little time with my nose in my old econ textbooks, but what I think I learned in college was this: efficiency drives real economic growth, which leads to broad standard of living increases in the long run. You can do a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul (which is what many economists think much of the law amounts to), but you're just shifting things around while destroying a little wealth while you're at it.

That's not to say that justice doesn't have significant value, but I think justice doesn't have infinite value. It would be more fair if the result of every civil and criminal trial was given a thorough review every five years even after all the parties involved are dead. But the costs would exceed the benefits. It would be more efficient to summarily execute everyone indicted by a grand jury for murder. But the costs would again exceed the benefits.

Another way to put it is that principles, rules, traditions, precedents, and the like have value only insofar as they produce actual tangible benefits to actual human beings.

Balancing efficiency and fairness in the legal system is like the yin and yang of efficiency v. effectiveness in business management. One area I think that makes for an interesting look at this balance is the family court system. Families started finding themselves in both municipal and district court, and that highlighted the inefficiency of the court. So with family court, they have a one-stop shop for everything, all consolidated with one judge, making things a lot more efficient and much more fair to all the parties involved, especially the kids.

Ironically, the judicial efficiency of family court battles with the economic efficiency. In my state, we have implemented family courts in a few counties here and there, but not state-wide. These few family courts though, have taken a huge chunk of the state's budget. Family court judges here have a dramatically higher ratio of clerks than the judges in district court. Who has the bigger caseload? District judges.

So it's all very interesting!
Maybe since you are often dealing with factually distinct cases it sometimes would actually be ineffecient to take the time necessary to determine what would be most effecient for that case.
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