Updated October 23, 2020:

Unclean hands, also referred to as the clean hands or dirty hands doctrine, is a type of legal doctrine that operates as a defense to a complaint. If the defendant can prove that the plaintiff has unclean hands, i.e., acted unethically, then the plaintiff’s complaint will be dismissed.

This defense is an affirmative defense that can be used by defendants; however, keep in mind that the defendant must prove the defense in order for the complaint to be dismissed. If a defendant does use this defense, he or she cannot put the plaintiff’s conduct at issue that is unrelated to the complaint. The unethical behavior that the plaintiff displayed must be in relation to the complaint itself.

What the Defendant Must Prove

The defendant has to prove that the plaintiff misled him or her in some way, or otherwise did something wrong regarding the matter. The conduct could be either legal or moral in nature.

This affirmative defense doctrine is usually applied in family law issues, particularly in issues regarding financial misconduct. Certain fraudulent activity can also be a factor in awarding child support and the division of property. However, such a defense can’t be used in cases that result in legal damages, i.e., monetary awards.

Note that the plaintiff can also use the unclean hands defense. Specifically, the plaintiff could argue that the defendant isn’t entitled to another type of defense due to his or her unclean hands.

Equitable Remedies

The doctrine of unclean hands is available only for claims that involve some sort of equitable form of relief, which is a relief in which the court will require the defendant to perform an action of some kind. Some examples of remedies include:

1. Injunctions

2. Specific performance

How to Prove Unclean Hands

The requirements for proving unclean hands can vary depending on the state in which the contractual dispute is being heard. Generally, it isn’t required that the plaintiff engages in the same wrongful conduct as the defendant. If the defendant brings the unclean hands defense, then the plaintiff could also be found to have unclean hands even if that conduct isn’t identical to the wrongful conduct that the defendant engaged in.

For example, the plaintiff might bring a breach of contract suit against the defendant. However, if the plaintiff acted in bad faith when initially drafting the contract, then the defendant can raise the unclean hands defense, among other potential defenses.

Furthermore, the unclean hands defense usually has nothing to do with the moral character of the other party. Rather, it is specific conduct. If the defendant is simply indicating that the plaintiff is a bad person, then this is not enough to justify the affirmative defense. Furthermore, if the plaintiff engaged in wrongful conduct that had nothing to do with the contract itself, then this defense is not available. Only if the plaintiff engaged in wrongful conduct relating to the contract can the unclean hands defense be used. Overall, equitable terms like good faith and conscience are used to determine if the unclean hands doctrine is available.

Examples of Unclean Hands Defense

Some examples that could be used for this defense include the following:

1. Not performing under the contract

2. Engaging in a fraudulent act or lying with regard to the contract itself

3. Committing a tort or crime with regard to the contract, i.e., bribery

4. Coercion or forcing someone to enter into the agreement

5. Getting an offer or accepting a contract that related to violence, i.e., hurting someone physically in order to force them to sign the agreement

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer?

Since this type of defense can be complicated, you might want to hire an experienced attorney who can help you determine if this defense is in fact available for you. Since this is a defense that can be raised by the plaintiff or defendant, you should work with an attorney who can assist you during the contract dispute. Furthermore, an attorney can help identify if you have any other defenses available to you.

If you need help learning more about the unclean hands doctrine, or if you are involved in a contractual dispute and need legal assistance and help identifying whether or not this defense is available, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel’s marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.