Clean Hands Doctrine Definition

Cite this article as:"Clean Hands Doctrine Definition," in The Business Professor, updated March 16, 2019, last accessed October 28, 2020,

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Clean Hands Doctrine Definition

Also referred to as dirty hands doctrine, this doctrine gives the defendant a chance to argue against the claims of the plaintiff in cases where the plaintiff acts in bad faith or has acted unethically during the presentation of evidence. In this case, the defendant should show, without doubt, that the plaintiff has acted in bad faith or unethically and therefore does not qualify to receive equitable remedy.

This doctrine states that, ‘those who seek equity must do equity’ and ‘equity comes with clean hands.’ It simply means that those who are in the wrong side of the law might not receive equitable remedy in cases they present in court.

A Little More on What is the Clean Hands Doctrine

This doctrine is used in the US patent law where it denies equitable or legal relief to patentee who is part of unethical conduct such as using patents to create monopoly power.

Not only is the doctrine used by defendants but it can also be used by the plaintiff to prove that the defendant is acting in bad faith or they have acting unethically in the presentation of evidence. This prevents the defendant from getting affirmative defenses. This doctrine, which can be traced back to Fourth Lateran Council, can be used by plaintiffs and defendants.

Equitable Remedies

Equitable remedies refer to all other remedies awarded by court except payment of damages. For instance, the plaintiff might be arguing that they need the terms of a certain contract met. Before equity law courts were developed in England, equitable remedies were unavailable in common law courts. For instance, if a land owner polluted the land of their neighbor, common laws would not have a remedy to force the defendant to stop pollution. Equity courts came and they developed such a remedy.

Equity courts realized extraordinary remedies would only be used in extraordinary cases and such a remedy would not be granted where damages were sufficient to complete the plaintiff. For instance, is a car dealer breaches a contract and fails to deliver a particular car to a buyer which would now be obtained for $10,000 more than the plaintiff’s original budget, the equity court would not force the dealer to pay the extra $10,000 or to obtain the same car and sell to the plaintiff. However, in case that involves real estate or a particular piece of art, the equity court can give specific performance.

Extraordinary remedies can be abused. For instance, a non-compete clause signed by a doctor with a clinic might prevent the doctor from earning a living outside the clinic. As such, the equity courts grant remedies on very strict terms. This means that the doctor will get employment and the clinic might get paid for damages that come with competition.

Reference on Clean Hands Doctrine

Academic Research for Clean Hands Doctrine

  • Coming into Equity with Clean Hands, Chafee Jr, Z. (1948). Mich. L. Rev., 47, 877. This is a paper that looks into the usage of the clean hands doctrine and coming into equity. The paper observes that, there are different instances where clean hands doctrine might be misused and there are many other instances where it helps individuals.
  • Application of the Clean Hands Doctrine in Damage Actions, Lawrence III, W. J. (1981). Notre Dame Law., 57, 673. This article examines the application of the clean hands doctrine in damage actions. The first part of this article looks at the rationale of the clean hands doctrine while the second part looks at why the doctrine should be extended to cover damage action.
  • A Comment on the Clean Hands Doctrine in International Law, Moloo, R. (2011). A Transnational Dispute Management (TDM), 8(1). This paper starts by observing that the international court of justice, ICJ, has confirmed the general nature of the legal concept of equity and how it is directly applicable as law. The paper continues to look at different instances in which the doctrine of clean hands can be applied in international law.
  • Clean hands and the CEO: equity as an antidote for excessive compensation, Anenson, T. L., & Mayer, D. O. (2009). U. Pa. J. Bus. L., 12, 947. This paper observes that the financial crisis prevailing in the US has placed the pay of executives at center stage and in corporate governance reforms. The paper whether solutions of judges to the problem will enhance regulatory reforms and eliminate excessive compensation. This paper assesses whether courts should add to the existing contracts with clean hands doctrine.
  • CLEAN HANDS” IN DERIVATIVE ACTIONS, Payne, J. (2002). The Cambridge Law Journal, 61(1), 76-86.  This article looks at the common view that shareholders who bring a derivative action on behalf of a company should have clean hands. The article suggests circumstances in which minority shareholder’s actions can affect the decisions to allow action brought by a shareholder to proceed. However, such a scenario does not spring from clean hands doctrine but from factual circumstances or from the desire of the court to use derivative action where necessary to achieve justice.
  • The Doctrine of’Clean Hands‘ and the Inadmissibility of Claims by Investors Breaching International Human Rights Law, Dumberry, P., & Dumas-Aubin, G. (2014). This paper looks at arbitral tribunals, in investor-state arbitration, have used the clean hands doctrine to determine jurisdiction or admissibility in the illegal conduct by investors. It also examines how tribunals should use this doctrine in future to find inadmissible claims in human rights violations.
  • Defenses in Equity and Legal Rights, Frank, J. P., & Endicott, J. (1953). Defenses in Equity and Legal Rights. La. L. Rev., 14, 380. This paper looks at the distinctions in law and distinctions in fact. It analyzes the rationale of courts of equity by sampling 350 cases where they have been conflicts between the common court and the court of equity.
  • A Critique of the Recrimination Doctrine, Moore, M. M. (1963). Dick. L. Rev., 68, 157. This paper notes that under the recrimination doctrine the defendant in a divorce case has to show that the complainant is guilty of gross misconduct and that will constitute as the ground for divorce. This paper explores the recrimination doctrine and the grounds on which it is applicable today.
  • Tort Law: Long v. Adams-The Dirt on the Clean Hands Doctrine, Wilkerson, M. (1987). UMKC L. Rev., 56, 791. This paper examines the role of clean hands doctrine in the event of personal injury. It takes a specific case of Herpes and AIDS and the author suggests that both diseases trigger the same principle in tort law when they are negligently transmitted. The paper looks at the traditional bases of liability in the event of injury and offers examples in Missouri and the defenses that have been raised.
  • Equity-A General Principle of Law Recognised by Civilised Nations, White, M. (2004). Queensland U. Tech. L. & Just. J., 4, 103. This paper explores the clean hands doctrine as a general principle. It observes that the international court of justice has ruled on over 130 matters since World War II. It shows that concepts used in ICJ have been applied in legal systems of different countries.

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