Updated November 16, 2020:

Clean hands is the legal principle that only a party that has done nothing wrong can come to a court with a lawsuit against the other person. If the party bringing the suit has acted in an unfair, illegal, dishonest, or otherwise immoral way in regards to the subject matter at issue then they have violated an equitable principle and have “unclean hands.”

Someone who violates equitable norms cannot then seek equitable relief or claim a defense based in the law of equity. However, only the activities involved and relevant to the subject matter of the legal action are considered. A party can be a horrible person as long as none of his/her bad acts relate to the legal claim. The immoral conduct can be of either a legal nature or a moral one, or both; it just has to relate to the subject matter in issue.

A defense available to the defendant would be to claim that the plaintiff has unclean hands because the plaintiff misled the defendant or did something else wrong related to the subject matter under scrutiny. To successfully claim the affirmative defense of unclean hands, the defendant must show that the plaintiff did in fact mislead the defendant or that a particular wrongdoing is related to the matter under consideration. This defense may not be used to discuss conduct of the plaintiff that is unrelated to the subject matter of the claim.

Examples of Clean Hands

Example 1: A doctor (plaintiff), who has left a partnership of doctors, sues the other doctors still in the partnership for money that he is allegedly owed under his contract with the partnership. The defense raises an unclean hands defense because the plaintiff has tried to take patients from the partnership’s practice. He also told incriminating lies about the remaining doctors in the partnership to convince patients to leave the partnership and come to him instead.

In this case, the doctor would not be able to successfully sue on equitable grounds for the money because he has unclean hands.

Example 2: If a seller of products induced a customer to sign the contract at issue based on fraudulent activity and then sues the customer to obtain payments for those products based on that contract, the defendant may raise the unclean hands affirmative defense because the plaintiff in fraudulently inducing the customer to sign the contract lost him right to sue under the clean hands doctrine.

A court of equity is unlikely to decide issues of unfairness or injustice in favor of the plaintiff if the defendant can show that the plaintiff who is asking for an equitable remedy has acted wrongly in regards to the claim or contract at hand.

Example 3: Let’s say company 1 was able to obtain confidential client information from company 2 in 2000. This was not by legitimate means, but by some unlawful or immoral conduct. Then, six years later, in 2006, company 2 stole some confidential client information from company 1. Company 1 sues company 2 to get the confidential client information back and enforce an injunction to prevent further stealing of information. Company 1 will not be successful because it sued company 2 with “unclean hands.”

Under the clean hands doctrine, company 1 has acted wrongly, both immorally or illegally and therefore has unclean hands and will not be helped by the court to fix the related immoral or illegal actions of another against it.

To claim unclean hands as an affirmative defense, the complaint brought to court must be seeking an equitable remedy.

Family Law

While this doctrine is most often talked about in contract law, it also has its place in family law. Here are a few examples of the doctrine’s use in family law:

  • Example 1: A parent kidnaps their child and then later requests custody. That parent will most likely be denied custody unless the child is in danger in the custody of the other parent.
  • Example 2: A spouse conceals assets or misappropriates marital property during the marriage or separation. The other spouse learns of misappropriation. The first spouse will likely receive less than her fair share when the property is divided at divorce due to her unfair conduct.

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