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Clean Hands Doctrine


The clean hands doctrine describes a legal situation in which a defendant in a case makes the contention that a plaintiff should not be entitled to equitable remedy since he or she has demonstrated unethical behavior or carried out duplicitous or fraudulent actions. The defendant in the case is required to generate the proof needed to substantiate the claims against the plaintiff. The clean hands doctrine can be utilized by a plaintiff to assert alternative remedies and bar the defendant from claiming reasonable affirmative defenses. A plaintiff can use it as an offensive tactic, while a defendant may utilize it as a defensive tactic.


Within the legal system, an equitable remedy is typically something other than compensation for damages. Such remedies may include acquiring a judicial order that obligates an individual to carry out certain actions or abstain from certain actions or mandating the fulfillment of a specific contract.

These equitable remedies were established in the equity courts of England outside of the courts of common law. The equity courts were established to specifically deal with plaintiffs petitioning for remedies that did not include damages. Prior to the development of equity courts, there were no remedies that could force a party to carry out a certain action or bar the party from performing a particular action.

For instance, if a property owner contaminated the property of his neighbor, the common law courts of the time could only permit the plaintiff to receive compensation for damages. Following the establishment of the equity courts, the plaintiff or neighbor could acquire an injunction, which could require that the offending party cease whatever actions are causing the contamination or take concrete actions to reverse it.

Equity courts began to recognize that exceptional remedies such as an injunction were only relevant in situations where compensation for damages would not be sufficient for the plaintiff. An example would be a car dealer who breaches a contract and denies a buyer the automobile that he or she wanted at the price they agreed to. If the price of the vehicle increased by $15,000 since the dealer and the buyer made an agreement and the vehicle is only available at that price, the court would likely award the plaintiff $15,000 instead of compelling the dealer to acquire the same vehicle to sell to the innocent party.

The clean hands doctrine has applications in various areas of law. It has several common applications within family law. For instance, if one parent kidnaps a child and demands custody in court, that request will likely be declined except if the child’s other parent poses a danger to his or her safety.