CHANCERY, COURT OF EQUITY - The name of a court exercising jurisdiction at law, but mainly in equity.
It is not easy to determine how courts of equity originally obtained the jurisdiction they now exercise. Their authority, and the extent of it, have been subjects of much question, but time has firmly established them; and the limits of their jurisdiction seem to be in a great degree fixed and ascertained.
The judge of the court of chancery, often called a court of equity, bears the title of chancellor. The equity jurisdiction in England is vested, principally, in the high court of chancery. This court is distinct from courts of law. American courts of equity are, in some instances, distinct from those of law; in others, the same tribunals exercise the jurisdiction both of courts of law and equity though their forms of proceeding are different in their two capacities. The Supreme Court of the United States and the circuit courts are invested with general equity powers and act either as courts of law or equity, according to the form of the process and the subject of adjudication. In some of the states, as New York, Virginia, and South Carolina, the equity court is a distinct tribunal, having its appropriate judge, or chancellor, and officers. In most of the states, the two jurisdictions centre in the same judicial officers, as in the courts of the United States; and the extent of equity jurisdiction and proceedings is very various in the different states, being very ample in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, and more restricted in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. But the salutary influence of these powers on the judicial administration generally, by the adaptation of chancery forms and modes of proceeding to many cases in which a court of law affords but an imperfect remedy, or no remedy at all, is producing a gradual extension of them in those states where they have been, heretofore, very limited.
The jurisdiction of a court of equity differs essentially from that of a court of law. The remedies for wrongs, or for the enforcement of rights, may be distinguished into two classes; those which are administered in courts of law, and those which are administered in courts of equity. The rights secured by the former are called legal; those secured by the latter are called equitable. The former are said to be rights and remedies at common law, because recognized and enforced in courts of common law. The latter are said to be rights and remedies in equity, because they are administered in courts of equity or chancery, or by proceedings in other courts analogous to those in courts of equity or chancery.
Now, in England and America, courts of common law proceed by certain prescribed forms and give a general judgment for or against the defendant. They entertain jurisdiction only in certain actions and give remedies according to the particular exigency of such actions. But there are many cases in which a simple judgment for either party, without qualifications and conditions, and particular arrangements, will not do entire justice, ex aequo et bono, to either party. Some modification of the rights of both parties is required; some restraints on one side or the other; and some peculiar adjustments, either present or future, temporary or perpetual. Now, in all these cases, courts of common law have no methods of proceeding which can accomplish such objects. Their forms of actions and judgment are not adapted to them. The proper remedy cannot be found or cannot be administered to the full extent of the relative rights of all parties. Such prescribed forms of actions are not confined to our law.
They were known in the civil law; and the party could apply them only to their original purposes. In other cases he had a special remedy. In such cases where the courts of common law cannot grant the proper remedy or relief, the law of England and of the United States (in those states where equity is administered) authorizes an application to the courts of equity or chancery, which are not confined or limited in their modes of relief by such narrow regulations, but which grant relief to all parties in cases where they have rights, ex aequo et bono, and modify and fashion that relief according to circumstances.
The most general description of a court of equity is that it has jurisdiction in cases where a plain, adequate and complete remedy cannot be had at law, that is, in common law courts. The remedy must be plain; for if it be doubtful and obscure at law, equity will assert a jurisdiction. So it must be adequate at law; for if it fall short of what the party is entitled to, that founds a jurisdiction in equity. And it must be complete; that is, it must attain its full end at law, must reach the whole mischief and secure the whole right of the party, now and for the future otherwise equity will interpose and give relief.
The jurisdiction of a court of equity is sometimes concurrent with that of courts of law and sometimes it is exclusive. It exercises concurrent jurisdiction in cases where the rights are purely of a legal nature, but where other and more efficient aid is required than a court of law can afford, to meet the difficulties of the case and ensure full redress. In some of these cases courts of law formerly refused all redress but now will grant it. But the jurisdiction having been once justly acquired at a time when there was no such redress at law, it is not now relinquished. The most common exercise of concurrent jurisdiction is in cases of account, accident, dower, fraud, mistake, partnership and partition. The remedy is here often more complete and effectual than it can be at law. In many cases falling under these heads, and especially in some cases of fraud, mistake and accident, courts of law cannot and do not afford any redress; in others they do, but not always in so perfect a manner.
A court of equity also is assistant to the jurisdiction of courts of law in many cases where the latter have no like authority. It will remove legal impediments to the fair decision of a question depending at law. It will prevent a party from improperly setting up, at a trial, some title or claim, which would be inequitable. It will compel him to discover, on his own oath, facts which he knows are material to the rights of the other party, but which a court of law cannot compel the party to discover. It will perpetuate the testmony of witnesses to rights and titles which are in danger of being lost, before the matter can be tried. It will provide for the safety of property in dispute pending litigation. It will counteract and control, or set aside, fraudulent judgments. It will exercise, in many cases, an exclusive jurisdiction. This it does in all cases of morely equitable rights, that is, such rights as are not recognized in courts of law. Most cases of trust and confidence fall under this head.
Its exclusive jurisdiction is also extensively exercised in granting special relief beyond the reach of the common law. It will grant injunctions to prevent waste, or irreparable injury, or to secure a settled right, or to prevent vexatious litigations, or to compel the restitution of title deeds; it will appoint receivers of property, where it is in danger of misapplication it will compel the surrender of securities improperly obtained; it will prohibit a party from leaving the country in order to avoid a suit it will restrain any undue exercise of a legal right against conscience and equity; it will decree a specific performance of contracts respecting real estates; it will, in many cases, supply the imperfect execution of instruments and reform and alter them according to the real intention of the parties; it will grant relief in cases of lost deeds or securities; and in all cases in which its interference is asked, its general rule is that he who asks equity must do equity. If a party, therefore, should ask to have a bond for a usurious debt given up, equity could not decree it unless he could bring into court the money honestly due without usury.
This is a very general and imperfect outline of the jurisdiction of a court of equity; in respect to which it has been justly remarked that, in matters within its exclusive jurisdiction, where substantial justice entitles the party to relief, but the positive law is silent, it is impossible to define the boundaries of that jurisdiction, or to enumerate, with precision, its various principles.
This entry contains material from Bouvier's Legal Dictionary, a work published in the 1850's.
Courtesy of the 'Lectric Law Library