Hard cases make bad law
Hard cases make bad law is an adage or legal maxim. It means that an extreme case is a poor basis for a general law which would cover a wider range of less extreme cases. In other words, a general law is better drafted for the average circumstance as this will be more common.
This is one of those unfortunate cases...in which, it is, no doubt, a hardship upon the plaintiff to be without a remedy but by that consideration we ought not to be influenced. Hard cases, it has frequently been observed, are apt to introduce bad law.
Great cases like hard cases make bad law. For great cases are called great, not by reason of their importance... but because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment.
Holmes's dissenting opinion in the case, which applied the Sherman Antitrust Act to the securities company, has been described as a reaction to President Theodore Roosevelt's wish to dramatize the issues of monopolies and trusts.
The legal scholar Glanville Williams questioned the adage's usage in 1957, writing, "It used to be said that 'hard cases make bad law' - a proposition that our less pedantic age regards as doubtful. What is certain is that cases in which the moral indignation of the judge is aroused frequently make bad law." Bryan A. Garner calls the phrase a cliche; while mentioning Williams's disparagement, he asserts that it remains in frequent use, "sometimes unmeaningfully".
In Re Vandervell's Trusts (No 2), Lord Denning MR observed the following, after one of the barristers in the case has asserted that the issues should be resolved in his client's favour, given that "hard cases make bad law":
Mr. Balcombe realised that the claim of the executors here had no merit whatsoever. He started off by reminding us that "hard cases make bad law." He repeated it time after time. He treated it as if it was an ultimate truth. But it is a maxim which is quite misleading. It should be deleted from our vocabulary. It comes to this: "Unjust decisions make good law": whereas they do nothing of the kind. Every unjust decision is a reproach to the law or to the judge who administers it. If the law should be in danger of doing injustice, then equity should be called in to remedy it. Equity was introduced to mitigate the rigour of the law. But in the present case it has been prayed in aid to do injustice on a large scale - to defeat the intentions of a dead man - to deprive his children of the benefits he provided for them - and to expose his estate to the payment of tax of over £600,000. I am glad to find that we can overcome this most unjust result.
Bad law makes hard cases
The adage's converse - "bad law makes hard cases" - has also been used. In his discussion of the converse, the jurist John Chipman Gray saw legal professionals as subject to the temptation of valuing the "logical coherency of the system itself" over the well-being of individuals. A more recent discussion of the adage and its converse sees cases that have received special attention as the recipient of more care.
- Michael Davis, Andrew Stark, "Conflicts in Rulemaking: Hard Cases and Bad Law", Conflict of interest in the professions
- William Letwin (1981). Law and economic policy in America: the evolution of the Sherman Antitrust Act. University of Chicago Press. pp. 182–183. ISBN 978-0-226-47353-6. Retrieved 1 August 2011.
- Bryan A. Garner (15 April 2001). A dictionary of modern legal usage. Oxford University Press US. p. 398. ISBN 978-0-19-514236-5. Retrieved 1 August 2011.
- Larry May; Jeff Brown (April 2009). Philosophy of law: classic and contemporary readings. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 25. ISBN 978-1-4051-8387-1. Retrieved 3 August 2011.
- The Law journal reports. E.B. Ince. 1878. p. 206. Retrieved 3 August 2011.
- Pennsylvania Bar Association; Pennsylvania Bar Association. Meeting (1917). Report of the ... annual Meeting of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. The Association. p. 235. Retrieved 3 August 2011.
- John Chipman Gray (1909). The nature and sources of the law. The Columbia University Press. p. 263. Retrieved 3 August 2011.