Most people are familiar with the general operation of courts of law in civil cases. A plaintiff sues a defendant for an injury or breach and seeks monetary damages. The court then applies rules of black letter statutory and common law to the facts, and delivers a result. This is the realm of the court of law.
What many don’t understand, however, is that there also exists a court of equity. Unlike courts of law, courts of equity historically were not governed by the black letter law, nor did they (absent some English exceptions) deliver monetary remedies. Instead, equity courts applied principles of justice and fairness that derived from natural law, which consists of laws and rights that emanate from the natural order of things, and are discoverable.
The early equity courts developed in England, and were called chancery courts, so named because they were administered by the King’s Lord Chancellor. Their authority derived from the King’s authority. They were the “keeper of the King’s conscience.” Courts of law and courts of chancery (equity) were separate courts, operating independently. Where a court of law delivered a result that was unfair or compounded an injustice, equity courts could and did act to mitigate or alter altogether harsh outcomes. For hundreds of years, the English equity courts wielded considerable power, and were largely unrestrained by black letter law or precedent.
Interestingly, there also existed in England a criminal court of equity, more commonly known as the Star Chamber. Like chancery courts, the Star Chamber’s power also derived from the King. The Star Chamber was originally established to bring to justice powerful persons whose positions might otherwise allow them to escape punishment in courts of law. This court had no formal indictments, and required a defendant to testify as to the charges against him. Its deliberations were secret. Over time, the Star Chamber’s power was abused, and it became vilified as an institution which trampled basic protections and individual rights that we take for granted today. Indeed, our own Constitution was in part adopted as a reaction against these abuses, and led to the adoption of the privilege against self-incrimination contained in the 5th Amendment. Generally speaking, today there isn’t a criminal court of equity in the United States, although there are certain equitable powers, such as pardons for convicts or sentence commutations, which can be exercised through the executive power of the President or a governor.
Conversely, equitable powers in the realm of civil litigation are alive and well, albeit much changed from their chancery predecessors. Today, most American courts are combined courts of equity and courts of law. They are no longer separate courts. Additionally, modern equity courts do operate under some substantive and procedural constraints. They are not unbound from law and precedent as were earlier chancery courts. When exercised today, equitable powers generally take the form of non-monetary remedies, such as injunctions, writs and orders for specific performance, and are invoked where a monetary outcome alone would be considered inadequate. Equitable decisions are informed by the Twelve Maxims of Equity, which include “equity delights in equality” and “equity will not suffer a wrong to be without a remedy.” From some of these principles we get many of our legal presumptions. For instance, the strong presumption in many states in divorce cases that an equitable division of marital property is an equal division is but one of these.
I hope this article has proven to be a concise and illuminating description of the evolution and power of the equity court. It is by no means complete. None of the foregoing should be taken as legal advice. Please consult with a competent attorney if you are engaged in a dispute that might involve equitable remedies.
David Williams, J.D., is Chief Executive Officer of Presto Servers, Inc. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.