Maxims: Follows the Law

September 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Equity follows the law” is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied maxims.

I have heard this maxim incorrectly invoked for the proposition that equity may not act unless there is a specific law, or that equity is inferior to the law.

I stated in a prior post on the maxims that, although equity will not suffer a wrong without a remedy, that concept is not unrestricted:

Over centuries the idea of “wrong” has been refined to include matters that are actionable, and to exclude those that the law deems not actionable. Judge Griffith explained it this way: ” … the maxim at this day is subordinate to positive institutions, and cannot be applied either to subvert established rules of law or to give a court of equity a jurisdiction beyond established principles.”

As I also said in that earlier post, “When the law bestows a right, it also extends a remedy that can be granted in equity. Conversely, a court of equity will not supply a cause of action where none exists in the law.” If a cause of action is recognized in either the common law or by statute, equity will give a remedy and forum to enforce it.

Here’s what Judge Griffith said on the subject:

“Whatever may have been the course of action in the formative period of the law, courts of equity no longer assume to annul or directly disregard the positive provisions of the established law: courts of equity are now as much bound by express rules of law concerning property and its interests as are courts of law, and particularly this is true of constitutional and valid statutory requirements and provisions. Wherever the rights or duties of the parties in a given state of facts are definitely defined and established by law, statutory or common, equity must enforce those rights and enforce those duties; and it is only when some countervailing, dominant, and equally well established equitable principle intervenes that a court of equity can assail or abrogate the legal right or duty. Therefore, in adjudicating questions of legal right, title or interest equity follows the legal rules, and even in adjudicating equitable titles, interests and estates, equity will follow the law where any clear analogy exists …” Griffith, § 40, p. 42.

In any case where the law does not preclude a remedy, equity will follow the law as far as the law goes, and if the law stops short in securing the rights of the parties. equity will continue the remedy until complete justice is done. Senter v. Propst, 190 Miss. 190, 207, 197 So. 100 (1940); Griffith, § 40, p. 42, fn 33a.

The maxim has even been interpreted so that a transaction that is invalid at law may be cognizable in equity. In Coffey v. Land, 176 Miss. 114, 120, 167 So. 49, 50 (1936), the Mississippi Supreme Court, with Justice Griffith himself writing, addressed the principle in a case involving mortgages on future crops, the statute providing for which had been repealed:

“Whenever it is declared under any long line of judicial precedents that a transaction is invalid at common law and yet is valid and enforcible in equity, it will be found that the distinction is preserved out of consideration of the fact that if such a transaction were bound up in the inflexible rules of the common law, injustice and hardship and general insecurity might result, whereas, if left to equity with its broader and more flexible powers and processes, a more perfect justice may be attained and the general security better served. We shall later herein seek by illustration to show that this is precisely the case as to annual crops to be produced in subsequent years. And as to any advancements made under our decisions, on the precise subject now under discussion beyond the strict bounds of the ancient common law, we would call attention to the fact that the common law is not an institution of exact and unchangeable rules, but is a system which progresses so as to accord with the general customs, usages, habits, and necessities of the people of the state, so far as agreeable to justice and reason; and this is at the same time to say that no court may, under the notion of making progress under the common law, pronounce any rule as being an allowable advancement upon the ancient common law rule, when the effect of it would be mischievous in its operation, contrary to the substantial interests of our people, and which in its tendencies would be subversive of their freedom.”

I am willing to concede that a decision like Coffey is a rare result, but it demonstrates the scope and power of equity vis a vis the law. It presented one of those infrequent occasions where ” … some countervailing, dominant, and equally well established equitable principle …” intervened and trumped the common law.

The spirit of equity is to ensure that justice is done.

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