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Equity - Equitable Relief, Equitable Defenses, Other Equitable Doctrines, Further Readings

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In its broadest sense, equity is fairness. As a legal system, it is a body of law that addresses concerns that fall outside the jurisdiction of COMMON LAW. Equity is also used to describe the money value of property in excess of claims, liens, or mortgages on the property.

Equity in U.S. law can be traced to England, where it began as a response to the rigid procedures of England's law courts. Through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the judges in England's courts developed the common law, a system of accepting and deciding cases based on principles of law shaped and developed in preceding cases. PLEADING became quite intricate, and only certain causes of action qualified for legal redress. Aggrieved citizens found that otherwise valid complaints were being dismissed for failure to comply with pleading technicalities. If a complaint was not dismissed, relief was often denied based on little more than the lack of a controlling statute or precedent.

Frustrated plaintiffs turned to the king, who referred these extraordinary requests for relief to a royal court called the Chancery. The Chancery was headed by a chancellor who possessed the power to settle disputes and order relief according to his conscience. The decisions of a chancellor were made without regard for the common law, and they became the basis for the law of equity.

Equity and the common law represented opposing values in the English legal system. The common law was the creation of a judiciary independent from the Crown. Common-law courts believed in the strict interpretation of statutes and precedential cases. Whereas the common law provided results based on years of judicial wisdom, equity produced results based on the whim of the king's chancellor. Commonlaw judges considered equity ARBITRARY and a royal encroachment on the power of an independent judiciary. Renowned seventeenth-century judge JOHN SELDEN called equity "a roguish thing" and noted that results in equity cases might well depend on the size of a chancellor's foot.

Despite this kind of opposition, equity assumed a permanent place in the English legal system. The powers of the Chancery became more defined; equity cases came to be understood as only claims for which monetary relief was inadequate. By the end of the seventeenth century, the chancellor's opinions became consistent enough to be compiled in a law reporter.

Because of its association with the king, equity was viewed with suspicion in the American colonies. Nonetheless, colonial legislatures understood the wisdom of allowing judges to fashion remedies in cases that were not covered by settled common law or statutes. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized the providence of equity by writing in Article III, Section 2, Clause 1, that the "judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity." All states eventually allowed for the judicial exercise of equity, and many states created SPECIAL COURTS of equity, which maintained procedures distinct from those of courts of law.

In 1938, the Federal Rules of CIVIL PROCEDURE established one system for processing both law and equity cases. Soon after, most states abolished the procedural distinctions between law and equity cases. In federal courts and most state courts, all civil cases now proceed in the same fashion, regardless of whether they involve legal or equitable redress.

The most important remaining distinction between law and equity is the right to a jury trial in a civil case. Where the plaintiff seeks a remedy of money damages, the plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial, provided the amount sought exceeds an amount specified by statute. Where the plaintiff seeks a remedy that is something other than money, the plaintiff is not entitled to a jury trial. Instead, the case is decided by one judge. If a plaintiff asks for both equitable and monetary relief, a jury will be allowed to decide the claims that ask for monetary relief, and a judge will decide the equity claims. Judges are guided by precedent in equity cases, but in the spirit of equity, they have discretion and can rule contrary to apparent precedent.

Delaware and Mississippi are among the few jurisdictions that still separate law and equity cases. In Delaware, equity cases are heard in a separate court of equity called the Court of Chancery. The court consists of one chancellor and four vice chancellors, all of whom are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. The court hears cases involving internal corporate disputes, as well as guardianship and trust management cases.

In any court, equity or otherwise, a case or issue may be referred to as equitable. This generally means that the relief requested by the plaintiff is not a money award. Whether to grant equitable relief is left to the discretion of the judge. By contrast, other civil actions theoretically entitle a plaintiff to a prescribed remedy (usually money damages) from either a judge or a jury if, based on the evidence, the defendant is unable to defeat the plaintiff's case.

CROSS-REFERENCES

Discretion in Decision Making.

Equity of Redemption [next]

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almost 2 years ago

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almost 6 years ago

Equity - Equitable Relief, Equitable Defenses, Other Equitable Doctrines, Further Readings