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The Roots of Modern Equity (continued)

Equity in the United States

T

he legal system of colonial America was based upon the English system, and that included a system of appeals based on equity. In the early days, colonial governors heard these appeals, but several colonies (later states) established their own chancery courts, modeled after the English courts.

By the time of the American Revolution, British chancery courts had problems. Not surprisingly, the courts were also unpopular with some people in America, who saw them as too aristocratic, arbitrary, and British.

Joseph Story, New York's chancellor from 1814-1823 was a respected lawyer whose chancery opinions were consistent and relevant to the needs of citizens in the new republic. Story wrote treatises on equity that helped restore faith in equity and bring this form of justice to the American frontier.

Equity has remained a feature of the American legal system, though most states' equity courts have now been merged into a unified court system that can hear both legal and equitable claims. Delaware, Tennessee and Mississippi are the only states that still have separate chancery courts.

Equity in the Courts Today

Today, concepts of equity are alive and well in the legal systems of many countries. Lawyers in the United States frequently file lawsuits that include both legal and equitable claims. Their opponents may also argue both legal and equitable defenses, but all the claims and defenses are typically part of one court case that is heard by one judge or jury.

To understand how legal and equitable claims can work together, let's suppose a graphic designer has a contract to create a logo for a business. The business has refused to pay the designer for the logo, but is using it on its products and website. The designer could sue the business on a legal theory of breach of contract, but he might lose because of a technicality in the contract. To avoid this, the designer might also add a claim based on the equitable principle that the business received something valuable and should pay for it.

In deciding these equitable claims, judges are guided by legal precedent and by principles of equity. However, equitable justice in the courts has some major limitations, especially when the parties come from different parts of the world.

Continue reading (page 5 of 7) …Why the Judicial System of Equity Can Be InadequateJudicial Equity Can Be Imperfect      
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