What Does Law and Equity Mean?

Written by erika johansen
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What Does Law and Equity Mean?
Courts of equity evolved out of dissatisfaction with law courts. (Justice image by MVit from Fotolia.com)

Law and equity refer to two different legal systems which seek to dispense justice in different ways. Law, as the name suggests, focuses on the actual rights and remedies afforded by common law and statutes. Equity focuses on granting justice in situations in which strict application of the law wouldn't do so. Those with specific questions about law vs. equity should speak to an attorney.

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Law

A court of law adheres strictly to the law. When a court of law decides what remedies to grant to a plaintiff, it looks only to the remedies that statutes, common law and other codified forms of law explicitly grant to the plaintiff. Traditionally, the only remedy awarded in courts of law was monetary damages.

Unsatisfaction With Law

In early England, the populace became disenchanted with courts of law. In many situations, plaintiffs who could only recover monetary damages found that remedy insufficient. Law courts' necessarily inflexible application of law precluded the courts from granting justice in more creative ways in extraordinary situations. Law courts also had trouble compelling powerful and wealthy defendants to produce the money for judgments.

Equity

Courts of chancery evolved in England in order to address the gaps in justice left by courts of law. Chancery courts, which later became known as courts of equity in American law, offered a wider variety of remedies to injured parties. Chancery created the doctrine of uses, the novel idea of separation of legal and equitable title (meaning that one party can own property, while another party has the right to use the property.) Courts of equity also created the idea of mortgages, using land to guarantee a debt. In contrast to law courts, equity courts have only judges, not juries. Courts of equity also had the power to hold defendants in contempt in order to make them comply with judgments.

Equitable Remedies

Equity courts created several new remedies for plaintiffs. Among other remedies, equitable plaintiffs can obtain injunctive relief, which forces the defendant to behave or not behave in a certain manner; equitable restitution, which forces an owner of property to hold the property for the benefit of another party; and specific performance, which forces parties to a contract to follow the contract to the letter. However, to obtain these remedies, plaintiffs must first prove that the legal remedy would not redress the wrong.

Unification of Courts

In 1973, the English Judicature Act unified the courts of law and equity. American states have also merged law and equity into single courts (with the exception of Delaware, Massachusetts and Tennessee, which keep law and equity separate.) Likewise, the distinction between equitable and legal remedies is less important than it used to be. However, the remedy sought does become important when deciding whether there will be a jury.

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