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Pursuant to a previous question, about a case where the courts seem to have incurred a significant loss in hearing it, what is the general/average position?

For example, many types of routines matters may be decided in a 5 or 10 minute hearing during a block listing, and they may cost upward of $100/£100. I imagine that these are mostly fairly profitable for the courts as they may hear dozens of them per day. Against these fees of course, the judges and other court staff must be paid, along with the court's utility costs etc.

Other types of more complex litigations requiring multiple day trials presumably are heard at a loss. But what is the aggregate position, generally speaking, for courts? I'm primarily interested in the situation across the common law world, but all jurisdictions are nonethesless most welcomed.

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    "fairly profitable"? Look around how many people work in a single courtroom. Judge, Bailiff, Stenograph are the absolute minimum but you generally see some more clerks, and bailiffs. Wages alone are eating several thousands for a single hour of hearings, and high profile cases haemorage wages or work time.
    – Trish
    Jan 29, 2023 at 4:09
  • As Trish suggested, how could you possibly think and country's Courts broke even, let alone made a profit? It's true that a tiny number of fines of hundreds of millions of dollars have been handed down… and how many, do you suppose? Jan 30, 2023 at 23:06
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    I think this is a Politics SE question. While it deals with the law, it deals with the logistics surrounding the law, rather than the law itself. Jan 31, 2023 at 4:36
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    I don’t think anyone suggested it should be privatised. And why does anything matter? It could just be interesting. Jan 31, 2023 at 12:47
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    A court running at a profit will have quite a wrong incentive.
    – fraxinus
    Jan 31, 2023 at 15:30

7 Answers 7

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The depends on which part of the court system you're referring to. In England, the courts are divided into a 'Courts & Tribunal Service' which turns a small (£100M-ish) profit from fees, and the 'Criminal & Youth Courts' which generate a significant amount of fines (over £700M) versus a cost of around £500M in running the courts, but the monies generated from these fines don't go directly back to the courts, instead going into central government revenue.

Additionally, over £1Bn was spend in the past 2-3 years renovating the courts themselves, making various pay awards and paying COVID outlays to remote access, so the short answer is that the UK courts could be made to turn a profit, but currently don't.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Dale M
    Jan 31, 2023 at 20:21
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This isn’t a matter of law in (in the US at least), but rather politics and civil service design.

Courts are a public service and should run at a loss. Likewise the police department. Water and sewage are public works and might break even.

Public works may run at a loss and may be supplemented by taxes. It may in some cases be more efficient (aka cheaper) to make them regulated industries instead.

And although there is no law against it, courts making a profit are an abomination and should at the least result in disbarment and being kicked out of office as appropriate for all concerned if proposed. When a public service becomes a source of revenue, then providing the service is no longer the goal and it becomes a business at best, but more likely simply a corrupt organization, either way the supposed service is going to become unimportant.

As a matter of practice courts are not profit centers.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Dale M
    Jan 31, 2023 at 9:06
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In 21-22, "Other Premiums, Fees and Licences" collected by Alberta's Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General totaled $28.1 million. This includes "fees for some of the services provided to the public, including: ... trial."

In 21-22, Alberta's "Court and Justice Services" had operating expenses of $190 million. This includes the 136 provincially paid Provincial Court judges, who were paid $318,500 for this period.

That does not include the salaries paid by Canada to the 80 judges of the Court of King's Bench and the Alberta Court of Appeal, who are paid $338,800 each, except for the Chief Justices and Associate Chief Justices, who are paid $371,400 each.

In 2012, Deloitte provided accounting of British Columbia's hearing fee revenue compared to the costs of the trials/hearings. It concluded that from 2007-09, fees were only recovering between 43 and 49% of the costs of trials/hearings. This was not even counting "costs for courtroom equipment, CSB headquarters or regional administration costs, building occupancy costs for maintaining washrooms, hallways and other facility services and registry or judicial furniture, computers IP charge/LAN drops and telephone line charges."

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  • But how much money is given to the courts by the government? In Canada, hospitals, universities, colleges, courts and some other organizations get money from the government (plus fees from clients/customers). Universities usually make money over time, and invest that money (often in oil and gas companies that pay dividends). Jan 29, 2023 at 19:25
  • Why is there such a huge disparity between Alberta and British Columbia?
    – M. Y. Zuo
    Jan 31, 2023 at 19:10
  • Should that be "$318,500 each"? Feb 1, 2023 at 1:51
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They run at a loss

First, and most significantly, no one pays anything to the court for running criminal cases. If you are charged with an offence, whether convicted or not, you don’t pay for your trial. You might pay a fine but that goes to the government, not the court.

For civil cases, the filing fees and per diem charges by the court are nominal where they are not waived for financial hardship. All up, they might cover the cost of the electricity needed to keep the lights on.

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    "no one pays anything to the court for running criminal cases" — not quite. Private prosecutors pay fees for hearings and filing certain documents.
    – Greendrake
    Jan 29, 2023 at 2:01
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    Have you any sources for this claims? Which court system (nation, state) do you refer to?
    – K-HB
    Jan 29, 2023 at 17:33
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    But extremely large sums of money are given to courts by governments (largely from taxes). Surely the OP didn't want you not to take that into account. I agree with Greendrake that private prosecutions are expensive, and I totally agree with K-HB that you should add sources for claims and state to which jurisdiction your answer applies. Jan 29, 2023 at 19:18
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    I think the motivation of fees for civil cases may simply just be that having a financial bar to civil cases weeds out the petty fueds and the frivilous cases. This may be important in many places with increasingly strained judicial systems.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jan 30, 2023 at 14:32
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    In theory; crimes that are penalized by fines could upend this and have the court make a profit. It's not clear if the people would revolt or view it as an accounting trick.
    – Joshua
    Jan 30, 2023 at 18:23
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Court fees are not always covering all costs, and fines don't fill its own coffers

Besides wages and electricity, the courtrooms run a considerable maintenance and construction cost. The amount each case taxes the system depends on the complexity and involvement of the court, and who gets the fees., so let's break it down into rough divisions.

Trafic court-style can break even... for the government.

Let's take a typical traffic courtroom and paint a scene.

There's the judge, their Bailiff and stenographer. There's also a traffic enforcement officer that is to testify about the tickets. That's 4 people's wages and electricity to account for that ultimately end at the government's bill: three via the court and one from general police. Add to that the courtroom building and its maintenance, as well as the traffic enforcement that runs before that. Let's account that all in bulk for a total of... let's say at the top maybe one thousand an hour at the lowest level. Let's say they manage to run through 6-10 cases an hour, each resulting in a fine that averages to 100 units of currency. That's 600-1000 bucks into the coffers, so maybe breaking even. But it's not into the court's coffers, but those of the government's fines division. It doesn't subsidize the court, so it's a tax on the funds allocated to the courts, while maybe running a slight profit for the government.

Small Claims Court tries to break even for the court.

Small Claims Court is similar in setup to Traffic Court, but with both sides being civil, filing fees apply. Those fees generally cover the costs of an average small claims duration in front of the judge, and these fees do go directly to the court, so Small Claims Court generally is cost-neutral.

larger Civil cases try to stay mostly cost neutral for the court.

In a civil case, filing and courtroom fees apply. Filing fees are usually per filing, courtroom fees just about cover the maintenance and maybe the stenographer or clerk of the court. In a typical civil case, the party's lawyers' cumulate to at least one to two magnitudes more than the court gets in various fees. This is most visible when a case with fee-shifting is litigated - copyright cases are the best example here.

In a fast case where people just want a judge's signature (e.g. "amicable divorce"), the court can maybe run a (slight) profit, but usually, such a case is neutral, though in high profile or complicated cases, it's costly to the system.

Also, note that people filing their cases in forma pauperis usually can skip court fees, resulting even in small cases at times running a loss.

Criminal Trials are very costly for little (financial) gain, or even more costs.

In a criminal trial, the costs running by the government are extreme: The basic setup is multiple bailiffs, the judge, the state attorney, multiple investigators, and experts, all of them ending on the government dime one way or another. Think in thousands per hour of hearings, about halfway split between the court itself and the prosecution, possibly adding the costs of a public defender and detainment.

In contrast, the possible outcomes are a fine for the benefit of the government's bucket, that maybe might sum up to about the amount spent, but the longer (=complicated) the trial is and the higher the public interest in it, the less such payment is likely to cover costs. Again, any fine is not ending in the court's coffers, but with the treasury. Also, detainment time does not add anything to either coffer but instead costs even more. However, detainment bills the government, not the court's budget.

Note that only in a few systems a criminal defendant is forced to pay court fees. In fact, some countries, like , do repay the defense's attorney's costs and missed wages for court dates if they are found not guilty.

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    This is why prosecutors must always think about the good that they think would come from removing the defendant from society. The people are paying for the trial. It should improve there lives or at least attempt to.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jan 30, 2023 at 14:37
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The technical answer

At least for Germany, that is strictly speaking not a meaningful question, because courts do not do accounting the way a business does. They do have a budget (called Haushaltsplan), which is a list of money they are expected to take in or receive, but it is not directly comparable to the balance sheet of a business, because the rules are quite different.

The pragmatic answer

If you look at the Haushaltsplan, you can take the difference between income and costs. Here, for example, is the Haushaltsplan for the Oberlandesgerichtsbezirk Braunschweig, a higher court in the city of Braunschweig. On the last page, you can see that, with rounding, the total cost is 144 mio €, and income about 62 mio €, making a shortfall of 82 mio €.

This article from the Bundesland of Baden-Württemberg provides a summary for the whole land, indicating that courts only covered 51% of their costs, and recommends raising court fees to alleviate that. However, it also recognizes that courts covering 100% of their costs is not realistic.

So the court is operating "at a loss" in that sense. At least in Germany, that is expected, as the operation of courts is considered a public service which is paid by the public, just like police, schools and transportation infrastructure, which are all (mostly) free to the users.


Interestingly, many people are asking similar questions. Traditionally, government budgets were fairly simple and did not consider for what purpose the money was used; in the last one or two decades, there has been a push for budgets that are more similar to what is used in the private sector, including budgets that define "products" and assign costs to them (Produkthaushalt). The goal is to make it more transparent where exactly the money is going, and to possibly enable savings. That is an ongoing project :-).

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In the U.S. I'm not aware of the judicial system having consistent problems with the budgets for their cases. Part of the reason is that the U.S. legal system is very very, tolerant of plea bargin deals, as it's a cost saving measure for the portions of the court system that are financially supported by tax payer money (i.e. The Judiciary and the Prosecution). Generally, of all cases that are entered into the court system in any given day, 90% will resolve before a jury is ever convened. The only government supported part of the justice system that does have chronic budget issues are the Public Defender's Office, though this is a factor of a high work load due to the fact that the state must provide a defense attorney for a criminal defendant regardless of the defendant's ability to afford an attorney (though if you can afford one, the price will usually be well worth it as they can be selective on intake. It generally means they will have less of a case load and more time for you specifically.).

Almost every case that actually goes before a judge will be assessed a "court fee" that is usually given to the losing party in the case (In Civil Cases, the damagages will almost always include the winner's full legal fees, including any filing fees in the list of damages and if there is any finding in the favor of just one party, the court fees are granted with no argument.

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  • the second paragraph is wrong: fees are to the court. Where fee shifting is applicable, the losing party has to pay the winning party the amount of those fees that the winning party incurred. The court doesn't give back any fees from its coffers.
    – Trish
    Jan 30, 2023 at 18:45
  • Also, courts are simply cheap. Setting aside all revenue that courts raise, it would be rare for the expenses of an entire state court system to exceed 1-2% of the state budget and at the federal level it would be a fraction of a percent of the federal budget even ignoring all revenues from the court system.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 3, 2023 at 20:25

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