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Working With Design Patterns: Chain of Responsibility

  • By Jeff Langr
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To understand the use of the chain of responsibility design pattern, think "chain of command." A request lands in Jane's inbox. Depending on the request and Jane's power or ability, she decides whether or not she can handle the request. If she can't handle the request, she passes it on to the next person in the chain, perhaps a manager. The manager either handles the request, or again passes it on.

The Design Patterns book suggests that chain of responsibility is applicable when more than one potential handler exists for a given request. The actual handler isn't known ahead of time, and the client need not care who handles the request. The pattern also allows for the command chain to change dynamically.

One conceptual example of the chain of responsibility pattern is the Java exception handling mechanism. Either a method handles a method, or it passes it up to the caller to handle.

Workflow-based systems are another area where the chain of responsibility pattern is particularly applicable. Expense reimbursement is one common example of such a workflow system.

An employee typically submits an expense report to his or her manager, looking for approval and subsequent reimbursement for business travel expenses. The manager (if in his or her office) often can approve the report immediately, as long as it doesn't exceed a certain amount and no other special circumstances exist. If the manager cannot approve the expense report, it moves along the chain to the next appropriate person. The next person might be a VP, or a peer manager if the original manager happens to be out of the office. Different rules and powers apply to the VP, and every once in a while, a big shot will have to get involved. In all cases, the person currently holding the expense report knows who the next person in line is.

Listing 1 shows the relevant code for an ExpenseReport class. This class tracks the amount, whether or not the expense involve international travel (a special case), and the person who ultimately handled (approved or rejected) the report.

Listing 2 presents the Approver class, the core of the chain of responsibility pattern. The Approver class represents the entity known in the pattern as the Handler. It's typically an abstract class. In this case, it could be represented as either; I've chosen to implement three specific handler subtypes: Manager, VicePresident, and CEO (see Listing 3). An AutoRejectHandler also exists; approvers of this type reject everything.

The client sends an ExpenseReport object to an Approver using the handle method. Code in the handle method determines whether to send the report on or to approve it. The report is sent on if the approver isn't allowed to handle it (too much money, or it represents international travel and they aren't cleared for that) or if the approver is out of the office.

Each of the Approver subclasses constrains the approval details. Managers can approve up to $5,000, and only some managers can approve international travel. Vice Presidents (VPs) can approve up to $100,000 and all international travel. CEOs can approve everything, unless they're out of the office, in which case the expense report automatically goes to an AutoRejectHandler (too bad for the employee!).

Listing 1: ExpenseReport.

public enum State {
   initial, approved, rejected

public class ExpenseReport {
   private int totalDollarAmount;
   private boolean isInternationalTravel;
   private State state = State.initial;
   private Approver handler;

   public int getTotalDollarAmount() {
      return totalDollarAmount;

   public void setTotalDollarAmount(int amount) {
      totalDollarAmount = amount;

   public boolean isInternationalTravel() {
      return isInternationalTravel;

   public void setIsInternationalTravel(boolean
      isInternationalTravel) {
      this.isInternationalTravel = isInternationalTravel;

   public void reject() {
      state = State.rejected;

   public void approve(Approver approver) {
      this.handler = approver;
      state = State.approved;

   public State state() {
      return state;

   public Approver getHandler() {
      return handler;

Page 1 of 3

This article was originally published on May 7, 2008

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