Redressing or preventing wrongs by one's own action WITHOUT RECOURSE to legal proceedings.
Self-help is a term in the law that describes corrective or preventive measures taken by a private citizen. Common examples of self-help include action taken by landlords against tenants, such as eviction and removal of property from the premises, and repossession of leased or mortgaged goods, such as automobiles, watercraft, and expensive equipment. Persons may use self-help remedies only where they are permitted by law. State and local laws permit self-help in commercial transactions, TORT and NUISANCE situations, and LANDLORD AND TENANT relationships.
Self-help is permissible where it is allowed by law and can be accomplished without committing a breach of the peace. A breach of the peace refers to violence or threats of violence. For example, if a person buys a ship financed by a mortgage, the mortgage company may repossess the ship if the buyer fails to make the mortgage payments. If the buyer is present when the ship is being taken away and the buyer objects to the repossession, the mortgage company breaches the peace if it can repossess the ship only through violence or the threat of violence. In such a case, the mortgage company would be forced to file suit in court to repossess the ship. Repossessors attempt to circumvent objections by distracting or deceiving the defaulting party during the repossession.
A majority of states have banned self-help by landlords in the eviction of delinquent tenants. These legislatures have determined that the interests of the landlord in operating a profitable business must be balanced against a tenant's need for shelter. In place of the self-help remedy, states have devised expedited judicial proceedings for evictions. These proceedings make it possible for a landlord to evict a tenant without unacceptable delays while giving the tenant an opportunity to present to a court arguments against eviction.
In states that give landlords the right of self-help, landlords may evict a tenant on their own only if they can do so in a peaceful manner. The precise definition of peaceful varies from state to state. In some states any entry by a landlord that does not involve violence or a breach of the peace is acceptable. In other states any entry that is conducted without the tenant's consent is illegal.
In any case, if a landlord evicts a tenant through self-help, the eviction must be performed reasonably. For example, a landlord may not nail plywood across the entrance to a tenant's second-story apartment while the tenant is inside and then remove the steps leading up to the apartment. One landlord who performed such self-help faced criminal penalties after the trapped tenant and her two-year-old daughter needed the help of the local fire department to escape the apartment. A landlord who violates laws on self-help may face criminal charges and a civil suit for damages filed by the tenant.
One new form of self-help that poses interesting problems is self-help by providers of computer software. Businesses in the United States that use computers have become dependent on computer software. Sometimes when disputes have arisen between the buyer of software and the software provider, software providers have disabled the buyer's software from a remote location. In one case a software supplier called Logisticon entered into a contract with Revlon Group to provide it with computer software. After a dispute arose between the two parties, Logisticon accessed Revlon's software system and disabled it, causing Revlon to suffer $20 million in product delivery delays. Revlon brought suit against Logisticon, alleging that Logisticon had violated the contract and that it had misappropriated Revlon's trade secrets. The two parties settled the suit out of court, and the terms of the settlement remain undisclosed.
Self-help measures are controversial because they amount to taking the law into one's own hands. Opponents of self-help laws argue that they encourage unethical and sometimes illegal practices by creditors and that they diminish public respect for the law. Proponents counter that self-help, if performed peaceably, is a valuable feature of the justice system because it gives creditors an opportunity to alleviate losses and keeps small, simple disputes from glutting the court system.
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