clean-hands doctrine

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The clean-hands doctrine is the principle that a party’s own inequitable misconduct precludes recovery based on equitable claims or defenses. The doctrine requires that a party act fairly in the matter for which they seek a remedy. A party who has violated an equitable principle, such as good faith, is described as having "unclean hands.” The clean-hands doctrine is invoked when a party seeking equitable relief or claiming a defense based in equity has themselves violated a duty of good faith or has acted unconscionably in connection with the same subject matter out of which they claim a right to relief. The doctrine of unclean hands does not deny relief to a party guilty of any past misconduct; only misconduct directly related to the matter in which he seeks relief triggers the defense. As explained in Kendall-Jackson Winery v. Superior Court, 76 Cal.App.4th 970 (Cal. Ct. App. 1999), the party asserting the unclean hands defense must prove that the misconduct relates directly to the subject matter concerning which a particular claim is made. In other words, there must be a direct relationship between the misconduct and the claimed injuries. This could include any evidence of a party's unclean hands in relation to the transaction before the court or which affects the equitable relations between the parties in the matter before the court. The court should be able to review such evidence in order to effect a fair result in the litigation. 

The doctrine derives from the maxim: “'He who comes into Equity must come with clean hands.” The Supreme Court explained in Precision Instrument Mfg. Co. v. Automotive Maintenance Machinery Co. (324 U.S. 806 (1945)): "This maxim is far more than a mere banality. It is a self-imposed ordinance that closes the doors of a court of equity to one tainted with inequitableness or bad faith relative to the matter in which he seeks relief, however improper may have been the behavior of the defendant. That doctrine is rooted in the historical concept of the court of equity as a vehicle  for affirmatively enforcing the requirements of conscience and good faith."

[Last updated in September of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]