Cost Per Case

Why Is This Measure Not Used As Much As It Should?

How long does it take? How much does it cost? These are the most frequently asked questions by customers, clients and other consumers of (or stakeholders in the provision of) services. We ask these questions when we consider seeking the assistance of a lawyer, getting our car fixed and remodeling our kitchen.

Even though cost analysis is still relatively new in courts, it is somewhat of a mystery why courts are comfortably fixated on answers to the first question while all but neglecting answers to the second. Time to disposition -- the percent of cases disposed or resolved within established timeframes -- is a performance measure that has been around for more than 25 years and is used by a majority of courts. On the other hand, cost per case is a perfromance measure that -- to the best of my knowledge -- is considered seriously by only a in a handful of courts and court systems (e.g., the Arizona Superior Court in Maricopa County and California’s Administrative Office of the Courts are currently testing the measure).

Time and cost go hand in hand. Why should a measure of one be embraced while a measure of the other be shunned by most courts? The simple answer to the question is that the methods for cost per case are not as well developed as those for time to disposition. A more complex, and more troubling, answer is that court managers fear that cost per case data in the hands of groups and individuals unfriendly to the courts will used to hurt the courts.

Methods for Cost Per Case Not Developed Until 2005

Effective court management requires sufficient resources to do justice and to keep costs affordable. While cost anlysis in the courts has received considerable attention in the literature of court administration (see, for example, National Institute of Justice's 1987 Analyzing Costs in the Courts), performance measures of cost have little widespread use amonng state courts. Standard 4.2, Accountability for Public Resources, of the Trial Court Performance Standards (TCTS) -- which were published in 1997 but were widely disseminated in tentative form in the late 1980s -- requires courts to responsibly seek the resources needed to meet its judicial responsibilities, use those resources prudently (even if they are inadequate), and account for their use. Cost per case is not a performance measure identified in the TCPS.

Measure 4.2.1 of the TCPS is a way for a court to make an assessment of the adequacy and utility of its caseload statistical reporting capacity. Measure 4.2.2 provides a framework for bringing together information about the three critical factors that determine whether a court is allocating its resources in a prudent manner. This framework facilitates a structured inquiry, albeit a highly subjective and intuitive one. The three factors are the court’s case categories (how the court defines and conceptualizes it services), how the court’s judges and operational staff are in fact organized and allocated in relation to those case categories ( its management decisions), and the information about demand the court does have (its case-filing data). Measure 4.2.3 entails a structured review of the court’s formal auditing practices (or lack of them) and indicates weaknesses in the way the court accounts for its resources such that misappropriation of public funds has or could likely occur. (See Trial Court Performance Standards and Measurement System)

Cost per case was introduced as part of the CourTools in 2005. Its metric and calculation are relatively simple and straightforward. It requires the following three data elements for a given time period (e.g., a year): total court expenditures, case dispositions (or filings) by major case type, and a complete staff directory. The court’s allocation of personnel across case types is used to distribute the court’s total expenses across case types. This method is used because the vast majority of court expenditures are personnel-related and courts generally allocate their judicial and staff resources rationally to accommodate their workload. Total costs by case type are then divided by the total number of cases to obtain the cost of a single case to yield the metric (e.g., $44.40 for a traffic case, $449.78 for a family case, $799.20 for a probate case, and so forth).

Fear of Misuse

At the most recent meeting of the Urban Court Managers’ Network last November in Phoenix, a number of court managers expressed strong reservations about the use of cost per case as a court performance measure. They saw little value in using it for internal court management and they feared that others may use the measure in ways that are not in the court’s best interest.

As I mentioned in Made2Measure posts on November 25 and December 5, 2005, as well as in a 2005 article in the Court Manager, Vol. 19, No.4, titled “How Do we Stack Up Against Other Courts? The Challenges of Comparative Performance Measurement,” it’s best not to brush these reservations under the rug. They may be anchored in strong beliefs, assumptions and generalization including: (1) a fear of exposure to criticism from comparative performance measurement that may point out that a particular court does not measure up or "stack up" to other courts (Why hand over to anyone such potent ammunition?); (2) the conviction that no two jurisdictions are alike and thus our court is incomparable; (3) a concern that performance data can be misused; (4) worry that performance measurement takes too much time, effort and money; and (5) the belief that performance trend data, by themselves, do not tell us why things are different, only that they are different.

Changing a negative mental model of performance measurement and overcoming the resistance to performance measurement of court leaders and managers, especially with regard to less familiar and more controversial measures such as cost per case, is perhaps the greatest challenge in starting a performance management initiative. Many of the best ideas -- in particular our reliance on performance measurement for management decisions -- fail to get put into practice in courts and court systems because they conflict with powerful, tacit mental models. Because they are often below the level of awareness, mental models often remain unexamined and untested.

I think it’s na├»ve to think that is sufficient to proclaim the advantages of cost per case and expect court managers to embrace the measure. We must first acknowledge and address the negative mental models that may impede its acceptance. The fear that measures such as time to disposition and cost per case will put a court, or even an individual judge, in an unfavorable light is not necessarily unfounded. In any event, it is best to acknowledge the limitations of cost per case, and threats to its use for internal court management and comparative performance measurement, to strive to minimize them in specific ways, and to demonstrate in specific terms that the benefits outweigh the real risks that these limitations and threats may pose for individuals and courts.

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