Recently, the Legal Theory Lexicon provided a very general entry on the the topic of justice. The notion of justice can be analyzed in many ways, but one good place to start is with Aristotle. Aristotle divides the topic of justice into two main parts, corrective justice and distributive justice. Distributive justice concerns the division of shares in social benefits and burdens; thus, many questions of tax policy are questions of distributive justice. Corrective justice involves the rectification of injustice, and thus includes a variety of topics from criminal law, torts, and contracts, among many others. Supplementing Aristotle's account, let us say that "procedural justice" is concerned with the means by which social groups (including governments, private institutions, and families) institutionalize the application of requirements of corrective and distributive justice to particular cases. This entry in the Lexicon provides an introduction to the idea of procedural justice for law students (especially first years) with an interest in legal theory.
Slicing a Cake
Our approach to the idea of procedural justice may be made easier by using a simple example. Consider the familiar procedure for dividing a cake: the person who slices the cake picks last. What makes this a fair procedure? One answer to this question might be the following: there is an independent criterion of what constitutes a fair outcome, equal slices for all, and the slicer-picks-last rule assures that we will get to this outcome. Slicer-picks-last is fair because guarantees accuracy.
But is it really the case that slicer-picks-last guarantees accuracy? If we really wanted to assure perfectly equal slices, then we could use a compass and the principles of plane geometry, with equal shares as a more reliable result. But this strikes us as an undue amount of fuss to go through when slicing a cake. Perhaps, the reason we believe that the slicer-picks-last rule is a fair procedure is that it strikes a fair balance between the importance of the outcome and the cost of getting there: the rule gets us close to equal shares most of the time at a reasonable price. Slicer-picks last might be considered fair, because does a good job of balancing.
But there is another feature of the slicer-picks-last rule that might account for intuition that this rule provides a fair procedure. Maybe the reason we believe that the slicer gets a fair share is because the slicer was the one who did the cutting; the slicer's participation in the cutting validates the outcome, even if the slicer ends up with a smaller slice (or among the calorie conscious, a bigger slice). Slicer-picks-last could be a fair rule, because of process independently of outcome.
Perfect, Imperfect, and Pure Procedural Justice
These questions about the fairness of procedures for slicing a cake can be generalized by setting out a framework for analyzing the idea of procedural justice. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls distinguishes three very general and abstract kinds of procedural justice: (1) perfect procedural justice, (2) imperfect procedural justice, and (3) pure procedural justice. Consider perfect procedural justice first. There are, he writes,
two characteristic features of perfect procedural justice. First, there is an independent criterion of what is a fair division, a criterion defined separately from and prior to the procedure which is to be followed. And second, it is possible to devise a procedure that is sure to give that desired outcome.
Rawls argues that our rule for the slicing of cakes is an example of perfect procedural justice. The person who slices picks last; Rawls believes that this procedure insures the equal division of shares. "Equal shares for each" is the independent criterion of a fair division; the slicer-picks-last rule is the procedure that reliably produces that outcome.
In the case of imperfect procedural justice, the first characteristic, an independent criterion for fairness of outcome, is present, but the second, a procedure that guarantees that outcome, is not. Rawls contends:
Imperfect procedural justice is exemplified by a criminal trial. The desired outcome is that the defendant should be declared guilty if and only if he has committed the offense with which he is charged. The trial procedure is framed to search for and to establish the truth in this regard. But it seems impossible to design the legal rules so that they always lead to the correct result. The theory of trials examines which procedures and rules of evidence, and the like, are best calculated to achieve this purpose consistent with the other ends of the law. Different arrangements for hearing cases may reasonably be expected in different circumstances to yield the right results, not always but at least most of the time.
Thus, imperfect procedural justice incorporates the notion of an independent criterion for accuracy but adds the notion of "other ends of the law," e.g., considerations of cost that may be balanced against accuracy. The final notion is "pure procedural justice." Rawls writes:
[P]ure procedural justice obtains when there is no independent criterion for the right result: instead there is a correct or fair procedure such that the outcome is likewise correct or fair, whatever it is, provided that the procedure has been properly followed. This situation is illustrated by gambling. If a number of persons engage in a series of fair bets, the distribution of cash after the last bet is fair, or at least not unfair, whatever this distribution is.
Pure procedural justice rejects an underlying assumption of both perfect and imperfect procedural justice--the assumption that there is an independent criterion for what constitutes the correct outcome. There are not criteria for the correct outcome except for an ideal (or actual) set of procedures.
Three Models of Procedural Justice: Accuracy, Balancing, and Participation
Rawls's theory provides an abstract framework that can be used to categorize theories of procedural justice, but it doesn't tell us what the content of a theory of procedural justice might be. Three approaches have been characteristic of thinking about procedural justice--one emphasizes accuracy, the second cost, and the third participation. Each of these three approaches can be expressed as simply model of procedural justice:
The Accuracy Model
We can begin with the utopian hypothesis that the current doctrine is structured by an implicit conception of perfect procedural justice?the accuracy model?corresponding to the idea of perfect procedural justice. The core idea of this model is that the aim of procedure is a search for truth?e.g. conclusions of law that are correct and findings of fact that are true.
But there are severe problems with the accuracy model. Given that civil procedure imposes real costs on litigants and society at large, it is difficult to argue that the smallest marginal gain in accuracy is worth the largest investment of resources. Justice has a price, and there is a point at which that price is not worth paying. Moreover, we have every reason to believe that accuracy is subject to the law of diminishing returns. If we were to make perfect accuracy our highest commitment, we would find that as we got closer and closer to our goal, the cost of reducing the marginal rate of error would become higher and higher. We will reach a point where society would be required to invest enormous resources for the most infinitesimal gain in accuracy.
The Balancing Model
The second model "the balancing model" corresponds to the idea of imperfect procedural justice. The consequentialist version of imperfect procedural justice finds substantial support in the decisions of the Supreme Court that interpret the Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution. The most striking example is provided by the balancing test announced in Mathews v. Eldridge:
[O]ur prior decisions indicate that identification of the specific dictates of due process generally requires consideration of three distinct factors: First, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and finally, the Government's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.
Beginning with the emphasis on balancing in doctrine, we could construct a utilitarian conception of imperfect procedural justice. This effort is complicated, however, because there are many forms of utilitarianism; for our purposes, we might consider ideal rule utilitarianism, in which an act is right if and only if it is conformity with the system of rules, which if universally followed would produce the best consequences. Let us make a further simplifying assumption: that all of the relevant costs can be expressed as prices. The resultant approach will be roughly similar to some law and economics approaches.
Consider for example, Richard Posner's economic analysis of procedure. He writes, "The objective of a procedural system, viewed economically, is to minimize the sum of two costs. The first is "the cost of erroneous judicial decisions." The second type of cost is "the cost of operating the procedural system." Operating costs are borne by the public, in the form of subsidies to the judicial system and by the parties in the form of court fees, attorneys' fees, and litigation costs.
The Participation Model
The third model--the participation model?corresponds to the idea of pure procedural justice. The key notion is that it is it is participation in the process and not outcome that defines procedural justice. The second interpretation of the participation model connects the independent value of process with the dignity of those who are affected by legal proceedings. One way of articulating this central notion is that everyone is entitled to their day in court. This right to participation is justified by a background right of political morality, i.e. the right of persons (or citizens) to be treated with dignity and respect. A procedure which ensures parties an opportunity to participate in the process of making decisions that affect them might be counted as a just procedure for this reason, independently of the correctness of the outcome that results from the procedures.
On influential version of the participation model has been developed by Jerry Mashaw. Mashaw states the intuitive idea as follows:
At an intuitive level, a dignity approach is appealing. We all feel that process matters to us irrespective of result. This intuition may be a delusion. We may be so accustomed to rationalizing demands for improvement in our personal prospects, in the purportedly neutral terms of process fairness, that we can no longer distinguish between outcome-oriented motives and process-oriented arguments. * * * Yet there seems to be something to the intuition that process itself matters. We do distinguish between losing and being treated unfairly. And, however fuzzy our articulation of the process characteristics that yield a sense of unfairness, it is commonplace for us to describe process affronts as somehow related to disrespect for our individuality, to our not being taken seriously as persons.
In recent years, the question whether participation has value that is independent of outcomes has been enormously controversial. The participation model reflects the view that participation matters for reasons other than cost and accuracy. Most advocates of the balancing model deny that participation has independent value--other than a subjective taste for participation which can be weighed in a cost-benefit analysis.
Of course, procedural justice is a very large topic, and we have only begun to scratch the surface. Law students encounter ideas about procedural justice in a variety of courses: Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, and Administrative Law are among the classes in which procedural justice may become an important focus of discussion. I hope this Lexicon post gives you a lively sense of the basic structure of legal thinking about procedural justice.
- Legal Theory Lexicon 018: Justice
- Legal Theory Lexicon 024: Balancing Tests
- Legal Theory Lexicon 049: Distributive Justice
- Robert Bone, Agreeing to Fair Process: The Problem with Contractarian Theories of Procedural Fairness, 83 B.U. L. REV. 485, 488-89 (2003).
- Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976).
- Jerry L. Mashaw, Due Process In The Administrative State (1985).
- Richard Posner, Economic Analysis Of Law (1992).
- John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice (1971).
(This entry was last revised on December 3, 2017.)