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On the Optimal Burden of Proof

  • Louis Kaplow

The burden of proof is a central feature of adjudication, and analogues exist in many other settings. It constitutes an important but largely unappreciated policy instrument that interacts with the level of enforcement effort and magnitude of sanctions in controlling harmful activity. Models are examined in which the prospect of sanctions affects not only harmful acts but also benign ones, on account of the prospect of mistaken application of sanctions. Accordingly, determination of the optimal strength of the burden of proof, as well as optimal enforcement effort and sanctions, involves trading off deterrence and the chilling of desirable behavior, the latter being absent in previous work. The character of the optimum differs markedly from prior results and from conventional understandings of proof burdens, which can be understood as involving Bayesian posterior probabilities. Additionally, there are important divergences across models in which enforcement involves monitoring (posting officials to be on the lookout for harmful acts), investigation (inquiry triggered by the costless observation of particular harmful acts), and auditing (scrutiny of a random selection of acts). A number of extensions are analyzed, in one instance nullifying key results in prior work.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 17765.

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Date of creation: Jan 2012
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Publication status: published as On the Optimal Burden of Proof, Journal of Political Economy, vol. 119, pp. 1104-1140 (2011).
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17765
Note: LE
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  1. Paul R. Milgrom, 1979. "Good Nevs and Bad News: Representation Theorems and Applications," Discussion Papers 407R, Northwestern University, Center for Mathematical Studies in Economics and Management Science.
  2. Miceli, Thomas J, 1990. "Optimal Prosecution of Defendants Whose Guilt Is Uncertain," Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 6(1), pages 189-201, Spring.
  3. Chris William Sanchirico, 2008. "A Primary-Activity Approach to Proof Burdens," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 37(1), pages 273-313, 01.
  4. Henrik Lando, 2002. "When is the Preponderance of the Evidence Standard Optimal?," The Geneva Papers on Risk and Insurance - Issues and Practice, Palgrave Macmillan, vol. 27(4), pages 602-608, October.
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