The Maxims of Equity

September 5, 2013 § 10 Comments

I made the statement several weeks ago that:

” … when all of the parties are assembled and within the jurisdiction of the court, and the judge makes a fundamental ruling that affects the relationship among the parties, the chancellor should have the authority to reach out and effect complete relief. Our chancery courts are still courts of equity, according to the Mississippi Constitution. The MRCP did not erase the great maxims of equity from our jurisprudence …

Yes, the maxims of equity. Have you heard of them? If you graduated from law school before 1982, you probably spent some time in the law library committing them and some of their key cases to memory. Since then, I’m not so sure. When the MRCP went into effect, it seems that there was a de-emphasis on teaching the idea of equity in chancery. If the procedures were in most matters identical to circuit practice, why was all that folderol about equity necessary?

Today, in an age when even evidence has been eliminated as a required subject in law school, I shudder to think that there might no longer be any formal effort to educate law students in the philosophical underpinnings of chancery and, indeed, the entire system of equity that is administered in our chancery courts.

The Mississippi Constitution, § 159, specifically confers on chancery courts full jurisdiction in “All matters in equity … ” as well as certain other enumerated areas.

Equity is distinguished from the law in civil cases in that the law may grant a money judgment (and by statute may even enter an injunction), but equity courts act on the person, imposing duties and obligations, creating equitable remedies to carry out the court’s orders to set right what is found to be wrong. The court of equity is a court of conscience. As the great Judge Griffith stated,

“It is more than a trite phrase that the court of equity is a court of conscience; and it is immaterial what rights a party could assert in a court of law, — a court of equity will limit him to those rights of which he could conscientiously avail himself. It has been tersely expressed that nothing but conscience, good faith, and reasonable diligence can call forth the activities of a court of equity, and when these requisites are wanting, the court is passive and does nothing.” Griffith, Mississippi Chancery Practice, § 32, p. 35.

The foundation and spirit of equity have been distilled into aphorisms known as the Maxims of Equity. Every equitable proceeding touches on or embodies them in one way or another, whether expressly or impliedly. They inform not only the form, but also the substance, of all equity matters. Traditionally there were 12 great maxims and 12 so-called lesser maxims. Judge Griffith combined them into 14 essential statements of equity principles.

The 14 essential maxims are:

  1. Equity will not suffer a wrong without a remedy.
  2. Equity delights to do complete justice and not by halves.
  3. Equity acts upon the person.
  4. Equity acts specifically, and not by way of compensation.
  5. Equity looks to the intent, and will regard substance rather than form.
  6. Equity follows the law.
  7. Equity aids the vigilant and not those who slumber on their rights.
  8. He who comes into equity must come with clean hands.
  9. He who seeks equity must do equity.
  10. To protect and enforce property rights is the object of equity.
  11. When parties are disabled equity will act for them.
  12. Courts of equity will not tolerate interference with their orders nor with their officers in the enforcement thereof.
  13. No person bound to act for another can act for himself.
  14. No person should be condemned without a legal chance to be heard.

The last two are equally applicable in law and equity courts.

If you’re going to spend time in chancery, you have got to understand how these maxims act as the very structure of equity upon which the chancellor bases his or her rulings.

This begins a series of posts that will focus on the Maxims of Equity. I will quote liberally in each from Judge Griffith’s 1950 monumental work on chancery practice. Although his tome is of only academic interest insofar as it relates to the pre-MRCP practice in chancery courts, Judge Griffith’s masterful grasp of the law of equity and its philosophy is unmatched. His book, now out of print, was once considered the authoritative work on Mississippi chancery practice, and was even employed as the law school textbook on the subject in the pre-MRCP era.

My goal is to acquaint a new generation of Mississippi solicitors (the traditional term for practitioners in Mississippi chancery courts) with these concepts, and to try to reintroduce them into the 21st century discussion of chancery court practice for the rest of us.


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