At my workplace, we have a large Django monolith that powers the main website and works as the primary REST API server at the same time. We use Django Rest Framework (DRF) to build and serve the API endpoints. This means, whenever there’s an error, based on the incoming request header—we’ve to return different formats of error responses to the website and API users.

The default DRF configuration returns a JSON response when the system experiences an HTTP 400 (bad request) error. However, the server returns an HTML error page to the API users whenever HTTP 403 (forbidden), HTTP 404 (not found), or HTTP 500 (internal server error) occurs. This is suboptimal; JSON APIs should never return HTML text whenever something goes wrong. On the other hand, the website needs those error text to appear accordingly.

This happens because 403, 404, and 500 are handled by Django’s default handlers for those errors and not by DRF’s exception handlers. As the DRF doc suggests1, overriding the error handlers is one way of solving it. But this will only work if the application is an API-only backend or if you haven’t already overridden the error handlers for custom error pages.

In our case, we already had to override the default error handlers to display custom error pages on the website. These custom pages would bleed into the API endpoints occasionally when errors occur. So, I thought, if I could handle this in the middleware layer, that’d be cleaner than most of the solutions that I’d seen at that point.


To fix the dilemma, I wrote a middleware called JSONErrorMiddleware that returns the expected response based on the content type in the request header. If the header has Content-Type: html/text and it experiences an error, the server returns an appropriate HTML page. On the contrary, if the incoming request header has Content-Type: application/json and the server sees an error, it responds with a JSON error payload instead. Here’s how the middleware looks:

# <app>/

from http import HTTPStatus

class JSONErrorMiddleware:
    """Without this middleware, APIs would respond with
    html/text whenever there's an error."""

    def __init__(self, get_response):
        self.get_response = get_response
        self.status_code_description = {
            v.value: v.description for v in HTTPStatus

    def __call__(self, request):
        response = self.get_response(request)

        # If the content_type isn't 'application/json', do nothing.
        if not request.content_type == "application/json":
            return response

        # If there's no error, let Django and DRF's default views deal
        # with it.
        status_code = response.status_code
        if (
            not HTTPStatus.BAD_REQUEST
            < status_code
            return response

        # Return a JSON error response if any of 403, 404, or 500 occurs.
        r = JsonResponse(
                "error": {
                    "status_code": status_code,
                    "message": self.status_code_description[status_code],
                    "detail": {"url": request.get_full_path()},
        r.status_code = response.status_code
        return r

You’ll have to add this middleware to the list of middlewares in the file:

MIDDLEWARE = [..., "<app>.middleware.JSONErrorMiddleware"]

And voila, now the API and non-API errors will be handled differently as expected!


Here’s how you can unit test the behavior of the middleware:

import json
from unittest.mock import MagicMock

from django.http import JsonResponse
from django.test import RequestFactory, TestCase, override_settings

from main.middleware import JSONErrorMiddleware

class TestJSONErrorMiddleware(TestCase):
    def setUp(self):
        self.factory = RequestFactory()

        def get_response(request):
            response = MagicMock()
            response.status_code = HTTPStatus.FORBIDDEN
            return response

        self.middleware = JSONErrorMiddleware(get_response)

    def test_json_error_middleware(self):
        # Arrange
        corrupted_url = "/account"

        # Act
        request = self.factory.get(
        request.content_type = "application/json"

        response = self.middleware.__call__(request)

        # Assert
        # Assert 404 no longer returns html/text.
        self.assertTrue(isinstance(response, JsonResponse))

        # Assert json format.
        json_data = json.loads(response.content)
        expected_json_data = {
            "error": {
                "status_code": HTTPStatus.FORBIDDEN,
                "message": HTTPStatus.FORBIDDEN.description,
                "detail": {"url": "/account"},
        for k, v in json_data["error"].items():
            self.assertEqual(v, expected_json_data["error"][k])

This workflow has been tested on Django 3.2, 4.0, and DRF 3.13.


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