The maxims of equity are fundamental principles that guide the application of equity in legal cases. These maxims serve as general guidelines for judges to ensure fairness and justice in their decisions. While the number and wording of the maxims may vary slightly depending on the jurisdiction, here are some commonly recognised maxims of equity:
Equity follows the law: Equity operates within the framework of the existing legal system and seeks to supplement and assist the law rather than contradict it. This maxim ensures consistency and harmony between equity and the common law.
He who seeks equity must do equity: This maxim emphasises that a party seeking equitable relief must come to the court with "clean hands" and act fairly and honestly in the matter. A person cannot expect equitable remedies if they themselves have acted unjustly or unconscionably.
Equity regards substance rather than form: Equity looks beyond technicalities and formalities to focus on the substance and merits of a case. It ensures that the true intentions and rights of the parties are considered rather than being solely bound by the strict legal form.
Equity delights in equality: Equity seeks to treat similarly situated individuals equally. It ensures that parties in similar circumstances are treated fairly and do not suffer undue advantages or disadvantages.
Equity acts in personam: Equity primarily acts against individuals rather than property. It focuses on the personal responsibilities and obligations of parties involved in a dispute rather than solely on the legal rights attached to specific assets.
Equity will not suffer a wrong to be without a remedy: This maxim reflects the principle that equity aims to provide a remedy for every legal wrong or injury suffered. It prevents situations where a party is left without recourse due to technicalities or limitations of the common law.
Equity acts specifically: Equity strives to provide specific relief tailored to the circumstances of each case. It aims to address the particular needs of the parties involved rather than providing generic or monetary remedies.
Equity acts in the absence of legal remedy: Equity intervenes when there is no adequate legal remedy (i.e. monetary compensation) available or when the legal remedy is insufficient to address the injustice or harm suffered by a party.
Equity will not allow a wrongdoer to profit by a wrong: This maxim signifies that if a person has engaged in wrongful conduct or has committed a legal violation, equity will intervene to prevent that person from benefiting or profiting from their wrongdoing.
Equity looks on that as done which ought to have been done: This maxim allows the court to treat an act as if it has been performed in the manner it should have been, even if it has not actually taken place. This principle is typically applied when individuals have a legal or contractual obligation to perform a specific action, and equity deems that action to be completed as it ought to have been done.
Equity does not punish: Equity focuses on providing remedies and enforcing fairness rather than imposing punishment on wrongdoers. The primary goal of equity is to restore the affected party to their rightful position or compensate them for any loss or damage suffered as a result of a breach of equitable duty.
Equity is a sort of equality: While common law may grant advantages or impose burdens on one party over the other, equity strives to restore a sense of balance and fairness by seeking to equalise rights, liabilities, and benefits among all parties involved in a dispute or transaction.
One who seeks equity must do equity: This maxim emphasises that a party seeking equitable relief must be willing to fulfil their own obligations and act equitably themselves. In other words, if someone wishes to obtain fairness and justice through the court of equity, they must also be prepared to meet their own responsibilities and obligations.
Delay defeats Equity / Equity aids the vigilant not the indolent: This maxim emphasises the importance of acting promptly to protect one's rights in equity. It signifies that if a person has been wronged and seeks equitable relief, they must not unduly delay in pursuing their claim.
Equity imputes an intention to fulfil an obligation: In certain circumstances, equity will consider a partial or approximate performance of an obligation as sufficient fulfilment, even if it does not precisely meet the terms of the obligation. This principle is based on the idea that equity looks at the substance of the parties' actions and intentions rather than a strict adherence to the letter of the obligation.
Equity abhors a forfeiture: reflects the general principle that equity seeks to avoid situations where a person is unjustly deprived of their rights or property due to a strict application of the law. It means that equity disfavours and seeks to prevent the imposition of harsh penalties or forfeitures for minor or technical breaches of contract or other legal obligations.
Equity abhors a forfeiture: Equity seeks to avoid situations where a person is unjustly deprived of their rights or property due to a strict application of the law. It means that equity disfavours and seeks to prevent the imposition of harsh penalties or forfeitures for minor or technical breaches of contract or other legal obligations.
Equity does not require an idle gesture / Equity will not compel a court to do a vain and useless thing: If a court grants a remedy or relief based on equitable principles, it will also ensure that the outcome is practical and meaningful.
He who comes into equity must come with clean hands: A party seeking equitable relief must have acted in good faith and without any wrongdoing in relation to the matter at hand. It means that a person who is asking for the assistance of a court of equity must have behaved fairly, honestly, and in accordance with the law in their own actions and dealings.
Equity delights to do justice and not by halves: When a court of equity determines that equitable relief is warranted, it has the power to provide a complete and comprehensive resolution to the matter at hand. It means that equity aims to deliver a thorough and fair outcome, not limited to partial or incomplete remedies.
Equity will take jurisdiction to avoid a multiplicity of suits: A court of equity has the authority to adjudicate on all the rights and claims of the parties involved in a particular matter in order to prevent multiple lawsuits arising from the same issue.
Equity will not assist a volunteer: Equity does not provide assistance or remedies to individuals who have not provided any consideration or made a legal entitlement for the benefit they seek or have received.
Equity will not complete an imperfect gift: Equity will not intervene to perfect a gift if the donor has not fulfilled all the necessary legal formalities to transfer the property. An imperfect gift refers to a situation where the donor has not taken all the required steps to legally transfer the ownership of the property to the intended recipient.
Where equities are equal, the law will prevail: Equity operates alongside the existing legal framework and does not seek to overturn or disregard the law in cases where the parties' positions are considered equal. It acknowledges the limitations of equity and its role in supplementing or correcting the law in situations where there is a disparity or unfairness.
Equity will not allow a statute to be used as a cloak for fraud: Equity will intervene when a party seeks to use a statutory requirement or formality as a means to conceal fraudulent or unconscionable behaviour. It recognises that strict adherence to a statute should not enable or protect fraudulent conduct.
Equity will not allow a trust to fail for want of a trustee: Equity will not allow a trust to become invalid or fail solely because there is a temporary absence of a trustee or a vacancy in the position of trustee. In other words, if a trustee resigns, dies, or is otherwise unable to fulfil their duties, equity will ensure that the trust continues to exist and its purposes are fulfilled.
Equity regards the beneficiary as the true owner: Under equity, the beneficiary is seen as the ultimate beneficiary of the trust assets, and the trustee holds legal title to the property solely for the benefit of the beneficiary. This means that even though legal title may be held by the trustee, the equitable interest and right to enjoy the benefits of the property belong to the beneficiary.
Between equal equities, the first in order of time shall prevail: When two competing equitable claims have equal merit or weight, the claim that arose first in time will take priority or prevail over the later claim.
These maxims of equity serve as guiding principles for judges in applying equitable remedies and ensuring fairness in the legal system. They help balance the rigid rules of common law with the flexibility and discretion of equity to achieve just outcomes in individual cases.
You can learn more about this topic and relevant case law with our Equity and Trusts notes.