During the era when Britain transported convicts to its colonies, judges often estimated the value of thefts to be 39 shillings, because 40 shillings would require the death penalty.

Likewise, it's said that during the trial of Yaoya Oshichi, the judge repeatedly asked her if she was 15 years old, because being 16 years old meant that she was subject to the death penalty.

Is there a term for this kind of deliberate misestimation, which might be used like "The judge ___ by stating that the thief had stolen goods to the value of 39 shillings".

The closest word I can think of is fudge, which is less harsh than saying that someone outright lied.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 14:26
  • Also I don't think fudge has the connotation of being smaller than a threshold Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 0:11

14 Answers 14


We have 2 (or 3) requirements:
(1) Must imply that it was Deliberate.
(2) Must imply that the Estimate was less than actual.
(3) Must imply that the other Party (not Self) was the beneficiary. (It is not in the title of the question, but this is what the Judges were aiming for)

Now, "Lowballed" satisfies (1) & (2), but may imply that Self was the beneficiary.

"Lowballed": made a deliberately low estimate. (Source : WordWeb Online)

Here are some alternatives which satisfy (2) only:

"Underestimated" , "Undervalued" , "Underreckoned" , "Underreported"

We may try to indicate (3) with "Benign" :

"Benign" : Kindness of disposition or manner (Source : WordWeb Online)

If we allow an adverb, then the following may satisfy all 3 requirements:

"Benignly Lowballed" , "Benignly Underestimated" , "Benignly Undervalued" , "Benignly Underreckoned" , "Benignly Underreported"

If we allow an adjective, then we may use it to Describe the Judge:

"Benign Judge"

  • 1
    Please add the source for your definition and consider adding formatting.
    – 0xFEE1DEAD
    Commented Jun 25, 2017 at 19:27
  • HI @0xFEE1DEAD , added "WordWeb".
    – Prem
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 2:57
  • 6
    "to lowball" is American slang, and sounds wildly off key, and inappropriate in the scenarios described by the OP. A more formal term is surely required, preferably legal. There's no link either to WordWeb cited in your answer. Etymology: American railroad term that described one of two positions of the ball of a ball signal. (Wiktionary)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 6:23
  • @Mari-LouA , (A) OP has a general question in the title, for which "lowball" may be an answer , but in the body, we come across specific cases involving "Benign Judges", where this answer may not be appropriate. (B) I was using WordWeb windows tool, hence no links. I will try WordWebOnline now.
    – Prem
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 6:54
  • 2
    I find it kinda interesting that none of the answers capture the "avoiding a threshold" part. In games it would be minmaxing, powergaming or maybe optimizing, but none of those terms are specific to staying just under or going just over a limit either.
    – JollyJoker
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 8:02

In both cases you could say the judge biased their estimate in the defendant's favour. Because bias is also used in a political sense it might not always work but here it does. Skewed is an alternative. Like biased it's transitive and needs something like judgement or estimate and an object.


The other answers seem to be addressing the example, not the core question, which is, how do you describe fudging a value to squeak just under a statutory limit? If food stamps cut off at $40,000, and I earned $30,000 in reported wage, my self-reported tips happened to be $9,999.

I don't think English has a single word or phrase to express the two concepts together:

  • you are altering the true value somewhat
  • the target is a fixed threshold

A word like skinning or ducking would imply both - but would only make sense if the importance of the threshold were known. And if it were, then tweaking to the threshold would be implied, and you only need to express the bending.

My suggestions are inline in italics.


Distort [dih-stawrt] verb (used with object)

  1. to twist awry or out of shape; make crooked or deformed: Arthritis had distorted his fingers.

  2. to give a false, perverted, or disproportionate meaning to; misrepresent: to distort the facts.

Source: Dictionary.com

"The judge distorted the facts by stating that the thief had stolen goods to the value of 39 shillings".

Though this usually carries a negative connotation (as truth is usually sacrosanct), in these cases the distortion was done compassionately.

"The judge compassionately distorted the facts by stating that the thief had stolen goods to the value of 39 shillings".

or you could focus on the generosity of the judge and say,

"The judge showed compassion by stating that the thief had stolen goods to the value of 39 shillings".



In Criminal Law, commutation is the substitution of a lesser punishment for a greater one. Contrasted with clemency, which is an act of grace eliminating a sentence or punishment, commutation is the modification or reduction of a punishment.

commutation : the reduction in severity of a penalty imposed by law. –TFD

commute : reduce (a judicial sentence, especially a sentence of death) to one less severe. –Google

"The judge commuted the sentence by stating that the thief had stolen goods to the value of 39 shillings".

  • 4
    This covers the intention of the judge better than any other answer, although it is not specific to changing a detail of the crime itself. Commented Jun 25, 2017 at 18:54
  • 7
    That's not really what the question is asking and I think you'd get funny looks from people if you used commute like that. Commute usually refers to reducing a penalty after it has been imposed. It does not have anything to do with fudging the details of the crime to lessen the punishment,
    – Kevin
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 16:06
  • I'm with Kevin on this one. It'd be an incorrect use of the term. Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 16:23
  • Well, I guess that's what happens when you try to borrow words from a legal system in which this cannot happen. 'Charges' are the prosecution's job. 'Sentencing' is the judge's. And the defense is... well, you get the point ;)
    – Mazura
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 0:43
  • To "commute" a sentence, the sentence must have been determined; commuting it (e.g., commuting a death sentence to life imprisonment) comes after the sentence has been handed down. I believe the OP is looking for a way to describe something that happens before sentencing.
    – Tom Hughes
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 17:56

This is an example of jurisprudence.

2b : the course of court decisions as distinguished from legislation and doctrine.

"Jurisprudence." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 25 June 2017.


It sounds like discretion. For example, if a cop pulls you over for speeding and (lots of enraging stuff here about race relations), they may choose to give you a ticket for a lower speed by using police discretion.(1) Judges do the same with sentencing by using judicial discretion, but they can't really change the charges unless they are also representing the prosecution as in a small court. Prosecutors can choose to bring charges for a lesser offence by using prosecutorial discretion.

"The judge used discretion by stating that the thief had stolen goods to the value of 39 shillings."

"The judge used his or her discretionary powers by stating that the thief had stolen goods to the value of 39 shillings."

Here is an interesting article about judicial vs prosecutorial discretion.

(1) But don't contest in court, because they record the actual speed, and you get hit with the full amount. I'm not bitter.


There are two terms that come to mind, depending on what aspect of the situation you want to emphasize.

If you want to emphasize that the judges are deliberately evading the letter of the law, you could say they were engaging in judicial nullification. The phrase nullification is most often used in the context of jury nullification; from the Legal Information Institute:

A jury's knowing and deliberate rejection of the evidence or refusal to apply the law either because the jury wants to send a message about some social issue that is larger than the case itself, or because the result dictated by law is contrary to the jury's sense of justice, morality, or fairness.

However, the term is also extended to actions taken by judges:

Controversy exists over the issue of judicial activisim, in which judges are sometimes accused of nullifying law according to their own will, deliberately ignoring inconvenient facts and even settled rules of law in order to obtain their desired result. ("Nullify Law and Legal Definition", USLegal.com)

The term is not specifically related to sentencing, but it does come up in this context:

[O]ur system has traditionally empowered a judge to strike the jury's verdict entirely by grant of judgment of acquittal . . . . Can [it be] structurally offensive to allow a judge to take action based on concerns of the same nature but of lesser intensity by not nullifying the entire verdict but by imposing a sentence that reflects the court's honest assessment of the facts before it? (Bruce Antkowiak, Jury Nullification, 38 Creighton L. Rev. 545. Probably paywalled, but you should be able to see the title.)

Can a judge nullify or circumvent a law that is otherwise valid and constitutional?
. . . Is an unjust, disproportionate sentence in the eyes of the judge such a moment? (Judge H. Lee Sarokin, "Should There Be Judicial Nullification?", Huffinton Post, May 25, 2011)

So you could say that

"The judge engaged in nullification/nullified the draconian sentencing law by stating that the thief had stolen goods to the value of 39 shillings".

On the other hand, if you want to focus more on the deliberate underestimation, the term shaving would work well. From Collins Dictionary:

  1. US to discount (a note, bill, etc.) by more than the legal or customary rate
  2. US, Informal to lower (a price, rate, etc.) by a slight margin

I'm not sure how much weight to put on the "US" in those definitions; Oxford Dictionaries also has, under its "British and World English" definition of shave:

2.1 Take (a small amount) from something.
‘she shaved 0.5 seconds off the British junior record’

2.2 Reduce by a small amount.
‘they shaved profit margins’

This term more directly emphasizes the intentional underestimation, but is not a specifically-legal term.

You could combine both terms to more clearly approximate your meaning:

In a classic case of judicial nullification, judges shaved the value of stolen goods down to 39 shillings (to avoid the mandatory death penalty imposed at 40 shillings and above).

  • circumvent a law +1. Could also use, mitigate/reduce the sentence/punishment
    – Mazura
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 23:50

Perhaps the verb to manipulate would be a good choice here especially because a manipulation is always deliberate and intentional.


In the Oshichi trial in particular you could say that the judge was "leading the question": phrasing his inquiry in such a way as to suggest what the desired answer is. This is not always used in a positive fashion, though, as the questioner may be trying to lead the responder to an answer which doesn't help the responder. However it's also not used in an exclusively negative fashion, either. Which one it is in any given use is derived from context and subsequent events. "Baited question" is another possibility, though this is much more frequently used in an arguably more negative sense: police officers often use bait questions to imply, in a non-accusatory fashion, that certain evidence may exist (or soon be found) with the intent to see if the responder changes their responses. Sometimes this is helpful the the responder, as it gives them an out from the consequences of lying the police, but can also be non-helpful as they are hoping to coax some degree of confession to a crime by implying they're going to be found anyway.

You might also say he was giving a "softball question", or a variant such as "throwing her a softball", to suggest he was trying to provide an (ostensibly) easier-to-hit target to help her out.

The 39 shillings example could warrant either of:

Such as "The judge tactfully estimated the cost of the theft at 39 shillings."


... judges often `underestimated' the value of thefts to be 39 shillings, because 40 shillings would require the death penalty.

  • 2
    Any documentation for this, @eromana?
    – Xanne
    Commented Jun 25, 2017 at 20:18
  • oops thanks Xsane ! According to on-line dictionaries under estimated is one word underestimated (verb)
    – eromana
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 21:07

They probably had to, plead guilty to reduced charges. If they didn't have to plead just ignore that part.

"Because thievery of 40 shillings would require the death penalty, the judge was willing to reduce the charges for anyone who would plead guilty to the theft of 39 shillings."

If you're looking for what to call that sort of conduct from an arbiter, @Phil Sweet already nailed it with, jurisprudence.

  • Judges don't fudge numbers. You plead guilty to a reduced charge.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jun 27, 2017 at 0:50

The most relevant concept is that of circumvention, where one avoids (and violates) the law without openly flouting it. You'd say that the judge circumvented the sentencing guidelines by misclassifying the offense. On the surface, it's more respectable than openly violating the guidelines, but still a violation of the law.

Three other examples:

  • In the U.S., a currency transaction report has to be filed whenever someone deposits over 10,000 USD cash. One circumvents this requirement by making multiple deposits of just under the amount.
  • Also in the U.S., a permit is required when someone builds a new factory of a certain type that would release more than 100 tons per year of an air pollutant. One circumvents this by pretending to build two factories (or one factory, then an expansion immediately afterwards), each of which releases less than 100 tons per year, but which collectively release more than 100.
  • In medieval Europe, the church ban on usury (collecting interest on a loan) was circumvented through the "triple contract." Three contracts were signed together which had the same effect as loaning money and collecting interest.

The phrase Normal Politics springs to mind, in the worst sense of course!

Consider its relation to Campbell's Law

  • 1
    Can you expand on this answer? What does "normal politics" mean?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 5:56

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