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Using the Unclean Hands or Clean Hands Doctrine

Written by: Kristy Welsh

Last Updated: October 26, 2017

In our How to Answer a Lawsuit article, we discussed how to answer the complaint or lawsuit that was presented to you. As part of your answer, a list of affirmative defenses should be included. One such affirmative defense is the unclean hands or clean hands doctrine.

What is the Clean Hands Doctrine?

The clean hands doctrine, also called unclean hands, is a defense to a claim for equitable relief, typically an injunction. The Defendant can argue that the Plaintiff has no grounds to obtain relief because he has acted unethically or in bad faith with respect to the subject of the complaint. The Defendant has the burden to prove that the Plaintiff is not acting in good faith, or that his hands are unclean.

Other Definitions of Unclean Hands

  • The clean hands doctrine is a rule of law that someone bringing a lawsuit or motion and asking the court for equitable relief must be innocent of wrongdoing or unfair conduct relating to the subject matter of his/her claim. It is an affirmative defense that the defendant may claim the plaintiff has "unclean hands". However, this defense may not be used to put in issue conduct of the plaintiff unrelated to plaintiff's claim. Therefore, plaintiff's unrelated corrupt actions and general immoral character would be irrelevant. The defendant must show that plaintiff misled the defendant or has done something wrong regarding the matter under consideration. The wrongful conduct may be of a legal or moral nature, as long as it relates to the matter in issue.
  • A legal doctrine which is a defense to a complaint, which states that a party who is asking for a judgment cannot have the help of the court if he/she has done anything unethical in relation to the subject of the lawsuit. Thus, if a defendant can show the plaintiff had unclean hands, the plaintiff's complaint will be dismissed or the plaintiff will be denied judgment. Unclean hands is a common affirmative defense pleaded by defendants and must be proved by the defendant.
  • Unclean hands, sometimes clean hands doctrine or dirty hands doctrine is an equitable defense in which the defendant argues that the plaintiff is not entitled to obtain an equitable remedy on account of the fact that the plaintiff is acting unethically or has acted in bad faith with respect to the subject of the complaint that is, with unclean hands. The defendant has the burden of proof to show the plaintiff is not acting in good faith. The doctrine is often stated as "those seeking equity must do equity" or "equity must come with clean hands."

Examples of the Clean Hand Doctrine

  • For example, if a seller sues a customer for payments on a contract, defendant may claim plaintiff has unclean hands because he fraudulently induced him to sign the contract. A court of equity will not decide issues of fairness and justice if it is shown that the person asking for such justice has acted wrongly in regard to the issue at hand.
  • In another example, when a brokerage firm claimed that its confidential client information was being pilfered by the competition, the court held that the firm did not come to court with "clean hands" since the court found that firm demonstrated a similar lack of regard for the competitor's confidential client information when it snared the same broker six years earlier.
  • Hank Hardnose sues Grace Goodenough for breach of contract for failure to pay the full amount for construction of an addition to her house. Goodenough proves that Hardnose had shown her faked estimates from subcontractors to justify his original bid to Goodenough.
  • This includes attempting to deprive defendant of his right to petition the government through use of litigation to harass him, falsification/concealment of crucial evidence, improper attempts to depose Main Action jurors and court personnel, efforts to deprive defendant of counsel, key witnesses and evidence, and subjecting him to the "Fair Game" policy.

When to Use Unclean Hands

Only use unclean hands when you have evidence that the other side in your lawsuit has done something illegal or immoral during the course of suing you or defending against a lawsuit brought by you.