There are within the discipline of equity, a number of maxims reverted to when settling many common law matters. The aim of this article is to present them in as exhaustive a manner as possible, while including notable cases that explain their application. As the list is fairly extensive, it will be presented here in two parts over two weeks, so as to allow for time and digestible reading.
Equity follows the Law (Aequitas sequitur legem)
The nature of equity is one that supports, rather than overrules the balance of justice, however it must also be stressed that where the moment calls, equity will go against those principles in pursuit of a fair outcome that common law fails to provide. A suitable case example for this is Stack v Dowden, in which an unmarried couple shared a home for over twenty years while raising their children, until the time came for separation. Upon parting, the father argued that as the two parties enjoyed joint legal title, beneficial interest was automatically deemed equal, unless robustly proven otherwise. This sentiment was echoed in the above maxim, and until this case had been presented, it remained common law that equal beneficial interest was assumed to mirror that of legal title. However, the evidence presented by the respondent was overwhelming to the point that for the first time, the percentages were divided heavily in favour of the mother. This reexamination of beneficial assumption was instigated by Baroness Hale of Richmond, who urged:
“The issue as it has been framed before us is whether a conveyance into joint names indicates only that each party is intended to have some beneficial interest but says nothing about the nature and extent of that beneficial interest, or whether a conveyance into joint names establishes a prima facie case of joint and equal beneficial interests until the contrary is shown.”
Where the equities are equal, the law will prevail
Frequently tied to property dealings, this maxim relates to two parties seeking title to a property without awareness of each others rights. An example of this might be a beneficiary to an estate who is unaware that a third party has since acquired legal title by means of a purchase (as sometime happens when wills are not updated nor properly constructed). The courts will view both potential owners as equal, however where the legal owner can prove ownership free of fraud, the latter will succeed. This position was underlined in Pilcher v Rawlins, where it was clarified by James LJ that:
“[S]uch a purchaser’s plea of a purchase for valuable consideration without notice is an absolute, unqualified, unanswerable defence, and an unanswerable plea to the jurisdiction of this court. Such a purchaser, when he has once put in a plea, may be interrogated and tested to any extent as to the valuable consideration which he given in order to show bona fide or male fides of his purchase, and also the presence of the absence of notice; but when once he has gone through that ordeal, and has satisfied the terms of the plea of purchase for valuable consideration without notice, then…this Court has no jurisdiction whatever to do anything more then allow him to depart in possession of that legal estate.”
Equity looks to the substance rather than the form
This is a fairly descriptive maxim that serves to keep focus on legal proceedings in such a way that holds the principle of fairness above that of policy or written codes of conduct. This is not to say that where statute dictates a course of action, equity will seek to ignore that. In fact, under those terms the black letter of legislation will always win the day. What it does aim to do is look at the form of the subject matter, rather than allow the intention to dissolve in favour of caveats that work against common law, and obstruct a proper outcome. This was demonstrated through the words of Lord Romily Mr in Parkin v Thorold, who remarked that an agreement between a vendor and purchaser did not rest upon the limitations of time, and that when charges brought against the vendor for specific performance altered the essence of the contract, it was equity that referred the parties to the form of the arrangement:
“[T]ime was originally not of essence of the contract…although express notice will make time of the essence of the contract, where a reasonable time is specified…the notice of the 21st October did not specify a reasonable time for this purpose.”
Equity will not permit statute to be used as a cloak for fraud
While perhaps limited in scope, the effects of this maxim can be appreciated within property law matters, as it is a legal requirement under section 53(1)(b) of the Law of Property Act 1924 that any contracts for sale or occupancy must be written. And so in Bannister v Bannister, the owner of a property conveyed a party rent free occupancy of the home for life, after which they tried to evict them. It was then argued by the defendant that an oral contract existed which thus defeated the act of statute when the respondent went back on their promise.
Equity imputes an intention to fulfil an obligation
Relating to ambition and intention, the aim here is to hold to account the statements or actions by a party that are later required to be enforced, regardless of any reasonable changes in circumstance. When the court finds that no such fulfilment has occurred, the obligation to do so will be levied through equity. An example of this is Lechmere v Lady Lechmere, in which a Lord bound himself to purchase land for an agreed sum, that would then pass through death to his wife. Upon his passing, it was discovered that he had failed to uphold his requirement during the lifetime of their marriage, by purchasing other lands that now fell within the residue of his estate, and required a successor in title other than his son. Through the application of this maxim, the court allowed the transfer to his wife for the amount agreed, and thus his obligations were deemed satisfied, as was expressed within the judgment which read:
“[W]herever a thing is to be done either upon a condition, or within a time certain, yet if a recompence can be made which agrees in substance, though perhaps not in every formal circumstance, such a recompence shall be good, and shall go in satisfaction of the thing covenanted to be done.”
Equity regards as done that which ought to be done
There are times in law where the misdeeds of others wind up obscuring the natural order of events, and so it is that the equitable maxim above is crucial to redressing the imbalance, and putting matters where equity can reign. A fitting case example would be Attorney-General for Hong Kong v Reid, where a senior crown prosecutor received bribes to obstruct the course of justice, while employed in a manner that bestowed fiduciary duties. When it was discovered that those illegal payments had been invested in a number of properties, it was agreed that those homes were held on trust by the appellant for the benefit of the Crown; and while the rules of equity prevent a debtor to the injured party being a trustee for the monies received, the Court of Appeal allowed that conflict to stand in order for the outcome to find form, and for natural remedy to occur. This decision was supported by Lord Templeman, who commented:
“It is unconscionable for a fiduciary to obtain and retain a benefit from a breach of duty. The provider of a bribe cannot recover it because he committed a criminal offence when he paid the bribe. The false fiduciary who received the bribe in breach of duty must pay and account for the bribe to the person to whom that duty was owed.”
Equity acts in personam
Because some matters involve effects belonging to individuals that may have since moved abroad, the principle that equity acts against the person provides domestic courts with an ability to extend their reach without interruption of foreign laws. This may come into play when a property owner or business person has entered into a contract that binds them within the United Kingdom, but whose absence may permit avoidance of liability for remedy. There are of course limitations to this maxim, and where the laws of the country occupied prevent such imposition, the party accused may yet evade its grasp. This was explained by Lord Cottenham in ex parte Polland, when he outlined:
“[C]ontracts respecting lands in countries not within the jurisdiction of these courts…can only be enforced by proceedings in personam which courts of equity are constantly in the habit of doing; not thereby in any respect interfering with the lex loci res sitae.”
Equity will not suffer a wrong to be without a remedy (ubi jus ibi remediam)
Much like the founding principle of equity itself, there are times when common law can inadvertently create unjust reward for those who deserve no such fortune. And so it is that when defective legal rulings are left wanting, the maxim ‘no misdeed should go unpunished’ can be applied to restore equality, while in many respects mirroring the maxim ‘equity regards as done that which ought to be done’.
An example of this is Ashby v White, in which a member of the public community was denied the right to vote by local policemen, who wrongly acted on the damning advice of parish members, claiming he was unfit to cast opinion. When taken to court, the claimant was awarded damages, after which the ruling was later overturned in favour of the policemen. This compelled the man to issue a writ of error against Parliament, on grounds that such a verdict allowed any member of a local authority to choose who could vote, when such powers were conferred upon central government. When it was appreciated that a legal process had allowed this kind of miscarriage, the initial judgment was upheld and damages paid, while expressed:
“[A]s all parliamentary causes are to be determined in parliament, it was conceived that this matter was properly determinable in the House of Commons only; and that the courts of Westminster-Hall not being authorized by any act of parliament, had no cognisance of it.”
He who seeks equity must do equity
‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’, might be another phrase better known to some, and so again equity commands the same from those seeking remedy. It is after all, the bedrock of law that fairness and equability must at all times remain in view should the rule of law justify its own existence; so when one party brings action against another, it must act accordingly should it wish those accused to do the same. An excellent example of this is Chappell v Times Newspapers, where Megarry J explained:
“If the plaintiff asks for an injunction to restrain a breach of contract to which he is a party, and he is seeking to uphold that contract in all its parts, he is, in relation to that contract, ready to do equity. If on the other hand he seeks the injunction but in the same breath is constrained to say that he is ready and willing himself to commit grave breaches of the contract…then it seems to me that the plaintiff cannot very well contend that in relation to that contract he is ready to do equity.”
He who comes to equity must come with clean hands
Once again we look to integrity and depth of character when assessing claims of inequitable conduct, except those claiming must themselves prove their argument does not rest upon misdeeds of their own within the parameters of the matter. An example of this is Barrett v Barrett, where two brothers worked together to avoid the loss of a property during business liquidation. When the party losing their business asks the other to purchase the home (held by the assigned trustee) before refurbishing it and selling it for a substantial profit, the buyer later refuses to pass the sale proceeds back to his sibling. The brother retaliates by taking action against him, but unfortunately during the hearing it emerges that the former owner acted in collusion so as to avoid surrendering the property as payment to his creditors, therefore his request for equitable remedy was built upon deception and avoidance of duties owed. This lapse of moral fibre was explained by Richards J, who noted:
“He has in effect pleaded the unlawful purpose in paragraph 15(1)(a) of his particulars of claim : the purpose of purchasing the property in the name of John was “to avoid its being repossessed by the Trustee in Bankruptcy”. Without that purpose, the agreement or arrangement has no rational explanation. Thomas needs to allege and prove it in order to establish the agreement, but in doing so he relies on his own illegal purpose and thereby renders his interest unenforceable.”
In closing, this last case wraps up part one of this final March insight article and next week the remaining maxims will be available for reading (unless more are discovered in which case there may well be a part three).