Case-weighting: a tool to improve the performance of the courts

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Judges and other justice officials commonly complain that they are overburdened with work, which leads to frequent requests for additional human resources and higher budgets. Under current fiscal conditions, however, few countries can afford to spend more. Furthermore, the universality and constancy over time of these complaints tend to decrease their credibility. Instead, courts are often asked to “do more with less.”
 
How do courts and other justice institutions assess their true needs? How can they improve efficiency and productivity, without impacting quality and access to justice? Moreover, how do they deal with issues related to major differences in caseloads between court houses and the individuals who work in them?
 
Many years ago, courts argued for increased budgets by highlighting the high number of incoming and unresolved cases, without making a distinction between types of cases, or how they are processed. Just a decade ago, many developing and transitional countries lacked such statistics, but as courts have developed more sophisticated IT systems, it is now possible to make more nuanced arguments.
 
Therefore, what is the right combination of resources to deal with the varying levels of work needed to process different types of cases? A judge who handles only simple traffic cases, for example, should be able to resolve many more cases than a judge handling bankruptcy or complex contract disputes. .  
 
A common tool for dealing with these questions is Case Weighting Analysis (CWA), a technique developed in the U.S. in the 1970s that aims to distribute cases among judges based on the recognition that different types of cases require different levels of effort from judges (or prosecutors and legal aid lawyers) and their staff.
 
The technique was often applied by asking judges and their staff to fill out time logs every 15 minutes to quantify the overall investment of effort in each type of case. This has proven to be a wildly inaccurate form of estimation. Over time, however, the method was refined to include online time records, tracking by case events, as well as by case type, and use of expert panels to estimate time, estimate relative levels of effort of different case types, or make adjustments to log results.
 
Although many of these refinements are optional, a focus on events is now considered both faster and more accurate in countries with more sophisticated automated case management information systems.
 
To help countries new to CWAs decide which option to use, the World Bank has prepared a study of global experiences in the design and implementation of CWAs. The study also reviews alternatives to CWAs, including Data Envelopment Analysis (DEA) and Stochastic Frontier Analysis (SFA), methods taken from industrial engineering. 
 
Aside from providing guidance to first-time users, the study also advises policymakers on the limitations within each of these approaches. 
 
One particular caution is that CWAs are most useful when the main inefficiencies in the system have largely been dealt with, and the remaining performance challenge is workload excess or imbalances between units or individuals. Otherwise, the risk is high that time logs will be “fudged” by attributing all work hours to productive activities.
 
Also, there is a considerable risk that inefficient practices become “baked-in” to the system via a CWA. This is because, even where estimates or logs accurately reflect the time invested, much of that time may be unnecessary, especially but not exclusively in work units with low caseloads. Broad use of a CWA in such contexts can be counter-productive.
 
CWAs also need to be mindful of ongoing reforms. Implementing a CWA in a dynamic environment when there are many ongoing reforms is a real challenge. This is because the reforms will impact the level of effort and make the CWA findings quickly redundant. 
 
So, CWAs are no panacea. They have a range of pitfalls and can be an expensive and time-consuming exercise. They are also not a “one-shot” exercise, but instead require periodic review.
 
Nevertheless, as long as these limitations are recognized, CWAs can be a useful tool in documenting how work is done, and can be especially useful in budgetary negotiations – both to argue in a more informed way for targeted increases in resources, and to find cuts where needed. 
 
The increased use of CWAs is also an indication that more attention should be paid to micro-level, within-system reforms to improve the performance of courts. CWAs will not fix everything but, if used appropriately, they can be a useful addition to the performance-improvement toolbox.

 
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Authors

Georgia Harley

Senior Justice Reform Specialist

Linn Hammergren

Consultant, Justice Reform

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