clean hands doctrine

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The clean hands doctrine is based on the maxim of equity which states that one “who comes into equity must come with clean hands.” This doctrine requires the court to deny equitable relief to a party who has violated good faith with respect to the subject of the claim. The purpose of the doctrine, as explained in Colby Furniture Company, Inc. v. Belinda J. Overton is to prevent a party from obtaining relief when that party’s own wrongful conduct has made it such that granting the relief would be against equity and good conscience. However, as noted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Keystone Driller Co. v. General Excavator Co. such a wrongful act must have an immediate and necessary relation to the equity that is being sought. 

The clean hands doctrine is an affirmative defense that the defendant may claim.  For example, in Holy Family Catholic School v. Boley, the defendant opened an account at a pharmacy for the benefit of the plaintiff so that plaintiff could obtain medication for his work-related injuries. The plaintiff charged items unrelated to these work-related injuries. The defendant closed the account, and the plaintiff sued to keep the account open. The court held that the plaintiff’s abuse of the account necessitated a finding that the plaintiff had "unclean hands" and that requiring the defendant to keep the account open would be against good conscience.

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