views updated May 17 2018


It is not surprising that in cultures founded on principles of individualism, equality, and capitalism, such as in the United States, theories concerned with fairness and exchange would develop regarding close relationships. A large body of relationship research has originated from a group of theories associated with social-exchange principles, which conceptualize relationships as based on principles of economics and behavioral psychology. One of the main principles of this research is the idea that a relationship is developed or ended based on partners' calculations regarding the costs and benefits of the relationship (Thibaut and Kelly 1959). For example, a person may rely on a friend for entertainment, occasional help such as getting a ride to the airport, and emotional support when a romantic relationship goes bad. These are types of benefits or rewards a person gets from the friendship. For the person giving the assistance and support, these behaviors can be perceived as personal costs associated with being in the friendship. Different social-exchange types of theories offer different insights into the possible ways relational partners compare their costs and benefits to determine whether or not the relationships is worth pursuing.

Equity theory proposes that relationship outcomes, such as satisfaction and continued involvement, are based upon evaluations of how just or fair the distribution of costs and benefits are for each partner (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978). The four main propositions of equity theory indicate that partners judge the distribution of costs and benefits according to socially acceptable rules of fairness. When their calculations indicate they are in an inequitable arrangement, partners will become distressed and try to adjust the costs and benefits of the relationship to make the relationship equitable.

The Scope of Equity Theory and Close Relationships

Researchers using equity theory have examined close relationships like friendships and family relationships. By far, though, the most researched type of relationship has been the heterosexual romantic relationship and much of the research reported here reflects that bias. Changes in sex role expectations for men and women, an increased number of women in the workforce, and an increased expectation of companionship and emotional intimacy in marriage has resulted in a more egalitarian, or equality-oriented, marital ideal over the past few decades (VanYperen and Buunk 1994). Equity theory provides an excellent framework for researchers interested in studying marital equality because it specifically focuses on perceived fairness in relationships. Furthermore, psychologists and sociologists have long noted differing outcomes of marriage for men and women in regard to well-being. Equity theory can be used as a framework to help explain their findings.

Equity theory is occasionally used to study close relationships in families. For example, perceptions of fairness, particularly in conflict management between parents and children, have been found to affect how siblings interact with each other later in life (Handel 1986). Equity theory has also been used to examine how satisfied parents and children are with their relationships and how perceived equity or inequity relates to different ways of maintaining a satisfying relationship between parents and children (Vogl-Bauer, Kalbfleisch, and Beatty 1999). However, most current research on equity theory and families focuses on the family's relationship with other institutions, such as education, welfare, and health care (see, for example, Wells, Kataoka, and Asarnow 2001).

Relatively little research has examined cultural or racial differences in regard to equity in interpersonal relationships, although there is some evidence that these characteristics affect both perceptions of fairness about sharing housework and providing income to the family and the amount of housework men perform (Coltrane and Valdez 1993; John, Shelton, and Luschen 1995). Research has also indicated that race may affect levels of distress resulting from perceived inequities in household labor (Rogers and Bird 1998). Additionally, in a cross-cultural analysis, Nico VanYperen and Bram Buunk (1991) found that the qualities seen as positive contributions to a relationship were different for Dutch and U.S. study participants. The Dutch participants saw social qualities, such as having friends, as more of a contribution to the relationship than the U.S. participants did. Conversely, the U.S. participants valued qualities associated with status, such as attractiveness and ambition, more than the Dutch participants did. These findings indicate that a person's racial, ethnic, or cultural identity and values may affect the way they judge fairness in a relationship as well as the characteristics and behaviors they label as costs and benefits.

Most research regarding equity theory and cultural or racial variables also considers the affects of gender. Research on Dutch couples has shown that gender role ideologies affect the division of housework and financial contributions to the family economy. For example, couples who are concerned with gender equality are more likely to split the division of labor in a way that benefits both partners, whereas couples with a more gender-stereotypic ideology tend to divide contributions along gender lines with women providing more domestic work and men providing more financial support (Kluwer, Heesink, and Van de Vliert 1997). This same pattern has also been demonstrated in U.S. couples as well (Blaisure and Allen 1995).

Overview of Equity Theory

As noted above, equity theory is a theory about fairness. Its application to close relationships has been primarily advanced by Elaine Hatfield (previously known as Elaine Walster) and her colleagues in the book Equity: Theory and Research (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978). The book outlines four interlocking propositions of equity theory and discusses the application of equity theory to different types of relationships, including intimate ones. The propositions are:

Proposition 1: Individuals will try to maximize their outcomes (where outcomes equal rewards minus costs).

Proposition 2a: Groups can maximize collective reward by evolving accepted systems for equitably apportioning resources among members. Thus, groups will evolve such systems of equity, and will attempt to induce members to accept and adhere to these systems.

Proposition 2b: Groups will generally reward members who treat others equitably, and generally punish (increase the costs for) members who treat others inequitably.

Proposition 3: When individuals find themselves participating in inequitable relationships, they become distressed. The more inequitable the relationship, the more distressed the individuals feel.

Proposition 4: Individuals who discover they are in an inequitable relationship attempt to eliminate their distress by restoring equity. The greater the inequity that exists, the more distress they feel, and the harder they try to restore equity.

As noted in Proposition 1, equity theory rests on the assumption that people are self-interested and will try to maximize their personal gains. This proposition has sometimes been questioned by researchers who believe that the nature of close relationships differs from other types of relationships. They argue that close relationships should not be based on individual calculations of costs and rewards and a self-interested focus on maintaining relationships solely for the personal profit they may provide. Instead, they argue that relationships should be based on a mutual concern for each others' welfare or needs (Clark and Chrisman 1994; Clark and Mills 1979).

Three primary ways of dealing with challenges to this assumption exist. One is to consider that individuals may vary in "exchange orientation" or the importance they give to monitoring equity in their relationships (Murstein, Cerreto, and Mac-Donald 1977). For example, some individuals may be high in exchange orientation, constantly keeping track of how much they and their partners put into or get out of a relationship. Other individuals may be low in exchange orientation, not paying attention to inputs, outputs, costs, and rewards of their relationships at all.

Measuring exchange orientation may be a way of measuring self-interest in relationships. Research by Susan Sprecher (1998) has supported this notion. Her findings suggest that different motivations for "keeping score" of costs and benefits in a relationship have different effects on relationship quality. People who keep track of inputs and outputs to make sure they are not underbenefited by the relationship seem to be less satisfied by their relationship whereas people who keep track of inputs and outputs to make sure they are not over-benefited by the relationship seem to be more satisfied by it.

A second way to account for differences in philosophies regarding self-interest in relationships is to include relational-level outcomes such as mutuality, sharing, and respect as types of benefits that individuals can receive from relationships. Relational partners may see themselves as a unit, with both of them maximally benefiting from the relationship. In this type of relationship, where identities of the individual partners have merged, what benefits one partner will also benefit the other. Relational-level outcomes have not regularly been considered in equity research, although similar concepts arise during discussions of entitlement processes (Desmarais and Lerner 1994) and fairness rules (Clark and Chrisman 1994) in close relationships.

Finally, equity in a relationship may be seen as its own reward. This idea is suggested by Proposition 2 that attempts to account for the development of rules, or norms, that limit self-interest behavior. If individuals were to continually strive for the most resources, anarchy and violence would dominate society as each member tried to gain more. However, Proposition 2 asserts that societies, groups, and couples will develop rules that foster fairness to each member in order to prevent such a condition. People who follow the rules of fairness will be rewarded, and people who do not will be punished. Thus, behaving equitably becomes a means to maximize one's outcomes, and fairness, more so than self-interest, becomes the norm.

Understanding the concept of fairness is essential to understanding equity theory. Elaine Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978) argue that fairness rules are culturally bound, indicating that generally one of three rules of fairness can apply: proportionality, equality, or need. Rules based upon proportionality mean that individuals receive "equal relative gains from the relationship" (p. 10, emphasis in original). In other words, each person should get out of the relationship gains that are in proportion to what they have put into the relationship. The equality rule, on the other hand, means that regardless of how much each person has put into the relationship, they should each reap equal rewards. Finally, the need-based rule indicates that need should be the determining factor in what partners get from a relationship, regardless of their individual contributions to it (Deutsch 1985).

Understanding fairness rules is very important to students, scholars, and practitioners interested in equity theory because distinct bodies of research have developed based on the different fairness rules. Moreover, considerable scholarly debate centers around which fairness rule is best applied to close relationships. Finally, the term equity has become synonymous with the use of the proportionality rule (e.g., Clark and Chrisman 1994), and theorists seem to fall into two categories: proportionality researchers who are identified as equity theorists and equality researchers who are identified as social (or distributive) justice researchers. Work from researchers who examine other fairness rules, such as the need-based rule, can be found in both bodies of work. Because equity theory as outlined in the four principles above is primarily concerned with perceived fairness in relationships, the term equity as used here will apply to fairness. Proportionality and equality will be used to refer to research and findings based on their respective rules. However, one should note that in the majority of the literature, the term equity is synonymous with the term proportionality, and equity and equality are the two terms that one will find most fruitful when searching databases and libraries for information.

Equity theorist have realized the importance of fairness rules and have debated their application to the study of close relationships. Although Elaine Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (1978) propose proportionality as the appropriate fairness rule, Margaret Clark and K. Chrisman (1994) note "we could not find work clearly documenting that people actually do tend to follow an equity [proportionality] norm more often than other possible norms in their intimate relationships" (p. 67). After reviewing relevant research regarding all three fairness rules, they argue that the need-based fairness rule is the most appropriate for intimate relationships. They also suggest that certain factors, such as the stage of development of the relationship, may affect the application of fairness rules. The idea that people may invoke different rules under different circumstances has also been supported by other theorists. For example, Linda Keil and Charles McClintock (1983) review literature that indicates situational factors may interact with agerelated cognitive and social process to make certain fairness rules salient. Serge Desmarais and Melvin Lerner (1994) propose that situational and contextual cues, such as strong feelings of "weness" in a relationship determine which fairness rules are appropriate, and Morton Deutsch (1975) contends that people choose the fairness rule they believe will be most effective for them in reaching their particular relational goals.

One situational variable that has received much attention in examining fairness in close relationships is power. Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (1978) address the role of power in equity theory by postulating that due to their self-interested nature, people will try to persuade others that their contributions are more valuable than the others' contributions. Those who successfully accomplish this will receive more benefits, will be able to persuade others that they are entitled to more benefits, and will develop ideologies that reinforce their right to receive more benefits. Over time, people will see this lopsided allocation of benefits as normal and acceptable. However, as Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues note, a marked shift in social power would enable underbenefited individuals to feel entitled to more and encourage them to begin efforts to change the allocation of benefits. It is interesting to note that parallels can be drawn between this scenario, gender relations in the United States over the past few decades, and research regarding marital relationships.

Researchers across disciplines have noted changes in marital relationships over the past few decades. This is not surprising because marital relationships across time and cultures differ with the social circumstances in which they exist. Among other factors, the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s has influenced changes in the labor market, with more and more women entering the workforce. Research on intimate relationships has shown that higher income for one partner can be associated with increased relational power (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983), and researchers often cite the increased numbers of women in the workforce as having affected changes in women's power, in sex-role expectations, and in marital ideals (VanYperen and Buunk 1994). One particular change is that marital partners are striving for more equality in the distribution of domestic, economic, and emotional contributions to their relationships (Scanzoni and Scanzoni 1988).

Even with changes in social and relational power between men and women, many researchers suggest that judgements of fairness in heterosexual relationships should not be based on the proportionality rule but should be based on the equality rule. Reasons for this assertion come in two forms. First, it is argued that because we live in a social system that values men's contributions more than women's, proportionality-based evaluations of contributions to a relationship can never be fair; for even though men and women may contribute equally to a relationship, men's contributions will be valued more that would, therefore, entitle them to more (Steil 1997). Research examining the perceived value of different relational contributions has been sparse, and mixed results have been found. For example, Janice Steil and Karen Weltman (1991) found support for gender-based valuing of careers when their research showed that women's careers are often not perceived as important as men's. However, Pamela Regan and Susan Sprecher (1995) found that men and women valued their own and their partner's contributions similarly on sixteen of twenty-two characteristics such as having a prestigious and important career, being easy to get along with, being passionate, and taking care of inside chores.

The second reason for equality-based rules of fairness is rooted in research related to equity theory Proposition 3 that focuses on the outcomes of inequitable relationships by asserting that individuals in inequitable relationships will become distressed. Researchers exploring the area of equitable outcomes in marital relationships often measure outcomes through reports or observations of behaviors rather than perceptions. This is because individuals' perceptions of their relationships can become skewed through gender-biased valuing of relational inputs, because an incongruence often exists between perception of one's behavior and the actual behavior itself, and because people in low-power positions often feel entitled to less that leads them to perceive an unfair situation as fair. Given this caveat, people do still report perceived inequity in their relationships, and it has been associated with negative outcomes, including less sexual intimacy, less sexual satisfaction, less commitment to the relationship, decreased happiness and satisfaction with the relationship, and relationship breakup (Sprecher 1995).

In 1972, Jesse Bernard published her book The Future of Marriage and argued that the outcome of marriage is unequal for men and women in terms of psychological well-being or distress. Well-being differences have been reported between married men and women in many studies, with women reporting more instances of psychosomatic illnesses, such as depression, distress, and headaches (Gove, Hughes, and Style 1983), even when they report satisfaction within their marriages (Steil and Turetsky 1987). According to Proposition 3, the presence of distress in a relationship can indicate the presence of inequity.

On the flip side of the coin, inequality is costly to men as well, although in different ways. Men become alienated from their families and do not participate in the domestic sphere or with their children. They have a reduced capacity for intimacy (Kaufman 1994). Furthermore, wives often resent their husbands' absence from the family (Schwartz 1994) and children become unhappy with their fathers' lack of emotional and physical participation in their lives (Kaufman 1994; Schwartz 1994; Silberstein 1992). Disconnection from the family often results in relational boredom and increases the potential for divorce (Schwartz 1994).

Support for the equality rule of fairness comes from researchers interested in close relationships and equality. Pepper Schwartz (1994; Blumstein and Schwartz 1983) and other researchers have found qualitative differences between couples who are able to create equality in their relationships and couples who are not or who come close but do not quite make it (Blaisure and Allen 1995; Hochschild and Machung 1989; Knudson-Martin and Mahoney 1998). Their findings show that equality is the essential ingredient for prevention of these negative outcomes. When marital equality is present, men are relieved of the pressures associated with the provider role and they have more intimate, more meaningful, and more satisfying relationships with their families (Steil 1997). Higher levels of marital satisfaction are related to equality in shared decision making and shared task control (Gray-Little and Burks 1983), and higher levels of wives' well-being have been associated with men's participation in housework (Steil 1997). Furthermore, husbands do not suffer from shouldering domestic duties. In fact, in marital relationships where economic and domestic responsibilities are shared equally, both husbands and children benefit from increased family time (Schwartz 1994); male empathy, understanding, and attentiveness (Coltrane 1996); more intimate and stable parent-child bonds; and more intimate and stable marital bonds (Schwartz 1994).

Given all the costs of relationship inequality, it is not surprising that Proposition 4 states people involved in inequitable relationships will try to restore equity. Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues (1978) provide two ways that a person can restore equity to a relationship: by restoring actual equity or by restoring psychological equity (the perception that equity actually exists when it does not). As noted earlier, researchers who use behavior to measure relational equity instead of perceptions may do so because they believe partners in an inequitable relationship do not see the inequity. This assumption is congruent with the concept of restoring psychological equity.

Research examining equity-restoring behaviors is scant but supportive of the proposition. In a study asking participants to imagine they were in an inequitable relationship, Sprecher (1992) found that participants expected that they would engage in equity-restoring behaviors, including increasing their partner's rewards, asking their partners to contribute more to the relationship, or changing their perceptions of the relationship so that it seemed fair. She also found that women were more likely to expect to engage in equity-restoring activities than men. Women in inequitable relationships have also reported engaging in or wanting to engage in extramarital sexual behavior. Engaging in sex outside of one's marriage may be a way of restoring perceived inequity (Sprecher 1995).

Proposition 4 of equity theory can provide an interesting framework for examining negative family behavior, such as extramarital relationships. Although it may be unpleasant to think about, the restoration of equity can help explain parent-child abuse. In this framework, abuse may be perceived as a way to restore equity to an inequitable parent-child relationship. Parents who feel exploited by their children may attempt to restore equity by retaliating against their children with verbal or physical abuse or by psychologically or physically abandoning their children (Walster, Walster, and Berscheid 1978). Furthermore, research regarding family violence has examined and supported a relationship between domestic violence and inequitable gender perceptions (Bryant 2001). Finally, the equitable or inequitable division of inheritance property may be another way for families to reestablish equity among its members (Stum 1999).


Equity theory has provided a solid framework for examining perceived fairness in close relationships. Research has focused mainly on heterosexual romantic relationships because of the close link between the development, implementation, and perpetuation of fairness rules in this type of relationship with expectations and perceptions of gender roles. Some theorists disagree with the assumption that close, personal relationships should be based upon calculated inputs and outcomes, whereas other researchers support the idea that, at least for marriages, partners should be vigilant to ensure that both spouses benefit equally from the relationship. Although equity theory has long been associated with the fairness rule of proportionality, the rule of equality is also compatible with equity theory, and research examining the use of this rule in close relationships provides a substantial body of literature in support of the theory.

Equity theory states that when inequity exists, relational parties become distressed. Support is mixed regarding whether participants in overbenefiting or underbenefiting relationships suffer the same type or extent of distress. Distress arising from perceived inequities in marital relationships has been the focus of researchers using the equality rule. In particular, women in inequitable marital relationships report more psychological and physical symptoms, such as headaches and depression, whereas men seem to suffer emotional detachment and relational boredom. Although equality researchers tend to assume victims of inequity will psychologically adjust their perceptions to believe that no injustice exists, little research exists to support this assumption. In fact, little research examines how partners set about reestablishing equity in their relationships at all, although negative relational behaviors such as extramarital affairs and violence have been explored.

Surprisingly, not much research has examined equity theory in family relationships, intercultural relationships, or other close relationships such as friendships. However, the research that has been conducted shows promising results for equity theory. As changes in society continue, their impact on close relationships will surely continue to affect expectations and perceptions of fairness. Beliefs about fairness are bound in cultural and political ideologies. As global communications become easier and international boundaries shrink, interpersonal relationships will become a greater focus for researchers. Fairness rules and their appropriateness and application to different types of relationships will no doubt continue to be a central theme.

See also:Conflict: Couple Relationships; Decision Making; Division of Labor; Dual-Earner Families; Housework; Marital Typologies; Power: Marital Relationships; Relationship Dissolution; Relationship Maintenance; Social Exchange Theory; Work and Family


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alaina m. winters


views updated Jun 27 2018


In its broadest sense, equity is fairness. As a legal system, it is a body of law that addresses concerns that fall outside the jurisdiction ofcommon law. Equity is also used to describe the money value of property in excess of claims, liens, or mortgages on the property.

Equity in U.S. law can be traced to England, where it began as a response to the rigid procedures of England's law courts. Through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the judges in England's courts developed the common law, a system of accepting and deciding cases based on principles of law shaped and developed in preceding cases. pleading became quite intricate, and only certain causes of action qualified for legal redress. Aggrieved citizens found that otherwise valid complaints were being dismissed for failure to comply with pleading technicalities. If a complaint was not dismissed, relief was often denied based on little more than the lack of a controlling statute or precedent.

Frustrated plaintiffs turned to the king, who referred these extraordinary requests for relief to a royal court called the Chancery. The Chancery was headed by a chancellor who possessed the power to settle disputes and order relief according to his conscience. The decisions of a chancellor were made without regard for the common law, and they became the basis for the law of equity.

Equity and the common law represented opposing values in the English legal system. The common law was the creation of a judiciary independent from the Crown. Common-law courts believed in the strict interpretation of statutes and precedential cases. Whereas the common law provided results based on years of judicial wisdom, equity produced results based on the whim of the king's chancellor. Commonlaw judges considered equity arbitrary and a royal encroachment on the power of an independent judiciary. Renowned seventeenth-century judge john selden called equity "a roguish thing" and noted that results in equity cases might well depend on the size of a chancellor's foot.

Despite this kind of opposition, equity assumed a permanent place in the English legal system. The powers of the Chancery became more defined; equity cases came to be understood as only claims for which monetary relief was inadequate. By the end of the seventeenth century, the chancellor's opinions became consistent enough to be compiled in a law reporter.

Because of its association with the king, equity was viewed with suspicion in the American colonies. Nonetheless, colonial legislatures understood the wisdom of allowing judges to fashion remedies in cases that were not covered by settled common law or statutes. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized the providence of equity by writing in Article III, Section 2, Clause 1, that the "judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity." All states eventually allowed for the judicial exercise of equity, and many states created special courts of equity, which maintained procedures distinct from those of courts of law.

In 1938, the Federal Rules of civil procedure established one system for processing both law and equity cases. Soon after, most states abolished the procedural distinctions between law and equity cases. In federal courts and most state courts, all civil cases now proceed in the same fashion, regardless of whether they involve legal or equitable redress.

The most important remaining distinction between law and equity is the right to a jury trial in a civil case. Where the plaintiff seeks a remedy of money damages, the plaintiff is entitled to a jury trial, provided the amount sought exceeds an amount specified by statute. Where the plaintiff seeks a remedy that is something other than money, the plaintiff is not entitled to a jury trial. Instead, the case is decided by one judge. If a plaintiff asks for both equitable and monetary relief, a jury will be allowed to decide the claims that ask for monetary relief, and a judge will decide the equity claims. Judges are guided by precedent in equity cases, but in the spirit of equity, they have discretion and can rule contrary to apparent precedent.

Delaware and Mississippi are among the few jurisdictions that still separate law and equity cases. In Delaware, equity cases are heard in a separate court of equity called the Court of Chancery. The court consists of one chancellor and four vice chancellors, all of whom are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. The court hears cases involving internal corporate disputes, as well as guardianship and trust management cases.

In any court, equity or otherwise, a case or issue may be referred to as equitable. This generally means that the relief requested by the plaintiff is not a money award. Whether to grant equitable relief is left to the discretion of the judge. By contrast, other civil actions theoretically entitle a plaintiff to a prescribed remedy (usually money damages) from either a judge or a jury if, based on the evidence, the defendant is unable to defeat the plaintiff's case.

Equitable Relief

Equitable relief comes in many forms. It may be a restraining order or an injunction, which are court orders directing a party to do or not do something. An accounting may be requested by a plaintiff who seeks to know how his or her money is being handled. A trust or constructive trust can be ordered by a judge to place the care and management of property with one person for the benefit of another. A partition is an order dividing property held between two or more persons. Declaratory relief is granted when a judge declares the rights of certain parties. The effect of a declaratory judgment is to set future obligations between the parties.

Under the remedy of specific performance, a judge may order one party to perform a specific act. This type of relief is often used to resolve contractual disputes involving unique property. For example, the purchaser of a house may not wish to obtain money damages if the seller breaks a contract for sale of the house. This may be so because a house is considered unique and thus the damage is irreparable—that is, it cannot be fully redressed by mere money damages. If the court agrees that money damages would be inadequate redress for the buyer, the judge may order a completion of the sale to the buyer, instead of money damages, for the seller's breach of contract.

Equitable contract remedies offer a judge an array of choices. rescission discharges all parties to a contract from the obligations of the contract. The remedy of rescission restores the parties to the positions they held before the formation of the contract. Restitution is an order directing one party to give back something she or he should not be allowed to keep. These two remedies may be sought together. For example, if a buyer purchases an antique piano on credit and later discovers it is a fake, the buyer may sue for rescission and restitution. Under such a dual remedy, the buyer would return the piano to the seller, and the seller would return any payments made by the buyer.

Reformation is an equitable way to remedy a contractual mistake. Suppose, for example, that a buyer agrees to order 5,000 units of a product but mistakenly signs a contract ordering the shipment of 50,000 units. If the seller refuses to provide fewer than 50,000 units and demands payment for 50,000, the buyer may sue the seller for reformation of the contract. In such a case, the court may change the terms of the contract to reflect the amount of product actually agreed upon.

Equitable relief has long been considered an extraordinary remedy, an exception to the general rule of money damages. Modern courts still invoke the rule that equitable relief is available only where money damages are inappropriate; in practice, however, courts rarely insist on monetary relief when equitable relief is requested by a plaintiff.

Equitable Defenses

The doctrine of clean hands holds that the plaintiff in an equity claim should be innocent of any wrongdoing or risk dismissal of the case. laches proposes that a plaintiff should not "sleep on his or her rights"—that is, if the plaintiff knows of the defendant's harmful actions but delays in bringing suit, and the delay works against the rights of the defendant, the plaintiff risks dismissal of the case. Under modern law, such defenses are available in any civil case. They are nevertheless considered equitable because they invoke notions of fairness; are not provided in statutes; and are decided only by a judge, not by a jury.

Other Equitable Doctrines

Many of the equitable doctrines listed here are codified in statutes. This does not make the issues they concern "legal" as opposed to "equitable." Such issues, whether codified by statute or not, are left to the discretion of a judge, who makes a decision based on principles of fairness.

Equitable Adoption Equitable adoption is the adoption of a child that has not been formally completed but that the law treats as final for some purposes. Generally, a child cannot be adopted without the fulfillment of certain procedures. However, it is sometimes fair and in the best interests of the child to imply that an adoption has taken place. If an adult has performed parental duties and has intended to adopt the child but has failed to fulfill formal adoption procedures, a court may order that for some purposes, the child should be considered part of the adult's family. The most common purpose of an equitable adoption is to give a child the right to inherit from the estate of an equitably adoptive parent.

Equitable Conversion Equitable conversion completes a land sale when the death of a seller occurs between the signing of the sale agreement and the date of the actual sale. In such a case, a judge will convert the title to the purchaser. This is in fulfillment of the time-honored maxim that "Equity looks upon that as done which ought to have been done."

Equitable Distribution Equitable distribution can describe a fair allotment of anything. In the law, equitable distribution is a term of art that describes a method used to divide the property of a husband and wife upon divorce. Under this method, the needs and contributions of each spouse are considered when property is divided between them. This differs from the process used under the community property method, where all marital property is simply divided in half.

Equitable Estoppel Under the doctrine of equitable estoppel, a person is prevented, or estopped, from claiming a legal right, out of fairness to the opposing party. For example, suppose that a person willfully withholds information in order to avoid defending a lawsuit. If the withheld information causes the lawsuit to be brought later than the statute of limitations requires, the person may be estopped from asserting a statute-of-limitations defense.

Equitable Lien A lien is an interest in property given to a creditor to secure the satisfaction of a debt. An equitable lien may arise from a written contract if the contract shows an intention to charge a party's property with a debt or obligation. An equitable lien may also be declared by a judge in order to fairly secure the rights of a party to a contract.

Equitable Recoupment Equitable recoupment prevents a plaintiff from collecting the full amount of a debt if she or he is holding something that belongs to the defendant debtor. It is usually invoked only as a defense to mitigate the amount a defendant owes to a plaintiff. For example, if a taxpayer has failed to claim a tax refund within the time period prescribed by the statute of limitations, the taxpayer may regain, or recoup, the amount of the refund in defending against a future tax claim brought by the government.

Equitable Servitude An equitable servitude is a restriction on the use of land or a building that can be continually enforced. When a land buyer is aware of an agreement that restricts the use of the land, the buyer may be held to the terms of the restriction, regardless of whether it was written in the deed.

Equity in Property Equity in property is the value of real estate above all liens or claims against it. It is used to describe partial ownership. For example, suppose the fair market value of a home is $80,000. If the homeowner has a mortgage and owes $50,000 on the mortgage, the equity amount is $30,000. The recognition of equity in property allows a property owner to borrow against a portion of the property value, even though the owner cannot claim complete and final ownership.

Equity of Redemption Equity of redemption is the right of a homeowner with a mortgage (a mortgagor) to reclaim the property after it has been forfeited. Redemption can be accomplished by paying the entire amount of the debt, interest, and court costs of the foreclosing lender. With equity of redemption, a mortgagor has a specified period of time after default and before fore-closure, in which to reclaim the property.

Equity Financing When a corporation raises capital by selling stock, the financing is called equity financing because the corporation is offering stockholders a partial interest in its ownership. By contrast, debt financing raises capital by issuing bonds or borrowing money, neither of which conveys an ownership in the corporation. An equity security is an equitable ownership interest in a corporation, such as that accompanying common and preferred shares of stock.

further readings

Chancery Court: Mississippi. Available online at <www.co.jackson.ms.us/DS/ChanceryCourts.html> (accessed September 15, 2003).

Court of Chancery: State of Delaware. Available online at <courts.state.de.us/chancery> (accessed September 15, 2003).

Laycock, Douglas. 1993. "The Triumph of Equity." SUM Law and Contemporary Problems 56 (summer): 53.


Discretion in Decision Making.


views updated May 23 2018


First named (in Article III) among the subjects to which the judicial power "shall extend" are "all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority." The word "equity" has here a technical meaning well comprehended by American lawyers of the eighteenth century, and today still generally familiar to lawyers in all legal systems derived from that of England. The explanation is necessarily historical.

In a development more than well begun in the Middle Ages, and pretty much completed by Stuart times, England developed a unique double system of courts at the national level—the courts of "law," or common law courts, and the "court of equity"—or, as it was often called, the "court of chancery."

The common law courts administered a system of law that was radically deficient, first as to remedies available, and, second, as to the breadth of considerations that could be taken into account in the formation of decisions. These courts could in most cases award only damages in money, in many cases a step inadequate to the doing of full justice. The common law courts were also excessively formalistic. If, for example, an error occurred in the transcription of a written contract, the common law courts had no conceptual apparatus for dealing with the mistake. Similarly, they had little capacity for taking into account the problems created by fraud. And the "trust," an institution of great importance, was utterly unknown to the "common law."

During the Middle Ages, suitors who could not get full justice out of the common law courts began to appeal to the Lord Chancellor, a high royal official, for supplementary or corrective help. By Tudor times, this practice had become firmly institutionalized, so that the Lord Chancellor became in some sense a judicial officer, hearing and dealing with such pleas. Little by little, the "chancery" came to be a court. This court had at its disposal a remedy enormously more versatile and efficient than the award of damages—the remedy of the order, or command, that the defendant do or refrain from doing something. The chancery court, in contrast to the courts of common law, knew nothing of the jury; the Chancellor decided all issues of fact and law.

This "court of chancery" opened its eyes, moreover, to many things the common law courts were institutionally disabled from seeing. While a suitor in the common law courts might, for example, get a judgment in his favor on a written contract procured by fraud on his part, the chancery court might order him to give up the fraudulently procured instrument, or to refrain from suing on it, or even to refrain from collecting on a "law" judgment he had already procured by using it.

Because this chancery court so often intervened in the name of a higher justice or of "conscience," it came to be thought of as (and called) a "court of equity." By the time of the drafting of the Constitution, the doctrines and practices of this kind of "equity" had become well systematized. And most of the new states had borrowed from English practice the two-part system of "law" courts and "chancery" courts, with the doctrines and remedial apparatus of equity available in the latter. It is against this background that the constitutional phrase, "cases in law and equity," is to be understood. "Cases in law" were such cases as would be heard by the common law courts; "cases in equity" were such as would be heard by the Court of Chancery, in England or in a state mirroring the English division.

At the very beginning, the new national government rejected (in the judiciary act of 1789) the idea of totally separate courts of "law" and of "equity." The lower federal courts combined "legal" and "equitable" jurisdiction in the same judges. But the ancient division was in some sense continued. Down to 1938, the federal district court had the two separate sides of "law" and "equity," respectively—in addition to such special jurisdictions as admiralty and bankruptcy. Even today, after the formal merger of "law" and "equity" cases under the single name of "civil action," lawyers still refer, for example, to the injunction (an order to do or not to do something) as "equitable relief."

"Equity" cases, in the language of Article III, are of great importance. The injunction is enormously more flexible and powerful than the remedies—mostly the award of damages—available to the court in a "case at law." Dramatic examples abound. It would have been impossible even to begin thinking about the lower federal courts' desegregating the schools if those courts had not had jurisdiction over "cases in equity" seeking orders to state officials. On this jurisdictional grant, indeed, rests the whole elaborate development of efficacious relief against official action thought to be unconstitutional—ranging from injunctions against the enforcement of unconstitutional laws (as in pierce v. society of sisters, 1925, enjoining state enforcement of a law requiring all pupils to go to public schools) to the running of state prisons by an Alabama district judge. (See institutional litigation.) The modern history of practical constitutional safeguards is a history of the use of the "equitable" remedy of injunction, together with the remedy of the declaratory judgment—a remedy that would probably have been judged outside the "judicial power" were it not for its close analogy to "cases in equity."

Another characteristic of "cases in equity," overpoweringly important in the use of the national judicial power to protect constitutional rights against action of the states, is that the "court of equity" does not use the jury. This, as far as we can tell, is a gift of history; there appears to be no intrinsic reason why a local jury should not find "the facts" in, say, school desegregation cases. Experience shows that local juries will not often convict, for example, in prosecutions for civil rights crimes, where the jury is constitutionally required. The whole course of development of national protection of human rights against local oppression might have been quite different if it were not for the fact that the "court of equity," the Lord Chancellor's court, sat without a jury—so that the federal judge, wielding the vital weapons in the "equity" remedial armory, does the same.

Charles L. Black, Jr.


Fiss, Owen M. 1972 Injunctions. Mineola, N.Y.: Foundation Press.

Mc Clintock, Henry Lacy 1948 Handbook of the Principles of Equity. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co.


views updated Jun 11 2018

chan·cer·y / ˈchans(ə)rē/ • n. (pl. -cer·ies) 1. a court of equity. ∎  equity. ∎  hist. the court of a bishop's chancellor. ∎  (Chancery) Brit. Law the Lord Chancellor's court, a division of the High Court of Justice.2. (in the Roman Catholic Church) the office of a diocese.3. chiefly Brit. an office attached to an embassy or consulate.4. a public records office.


views updated May 17 2018


Equity, in economic and financial terms, stands for ownership or a share of ownership in property, a corporation, or other asset. Equity oftentimes is represented in the form of stock. A stock represents a claim on a portion of a corporation's assets and profits. It may be purchased on a securities market such as the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (NASDAQ), and the American Stock Exchange (AMEX).

If, for example, one wishes to acquire equity in a new technology company listed on one of the securities markets, one will place an order to purchase a certain number of stock shares. Once the purchase is complete, the individual retains part ownership in the technology company until the stock is sold. With this ownership, the individual may become the recipient of dividends, a small amount of the companies profits distributed on a regular basis to shareholders in the form of cash or additional stock shares.

Equity is also a technical term representing the value of a property minus the owner's outstanding debts, including a mortgage balance. A mortgage is money loaned to a borrower at a set interest rate in exchange for a portion of the profits when the borrower sells the mortgaged property. When the mortgage and all other debts are completely paid off, the owner retains 100 percent equity in the property.

See also: Asset, Dividends, Mortgage, National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations (System), New York Stock Exchange, Stock


views updated Jun 27 2018

eq·ui·ty / ˈekwitē/ • n. (pl. -ties) 1. the quality of being fair and impartial: equity of treatment. ∎  Law a branch of law that developed alongside common law in order to remedy some of its defects in fairness and justice, formerly administered in special courts.2. the value of the shares issued by a company: he owns 62% of the group's equity. ∎  (equities) stocks and shares that carry no fixed interest.3. the value of a mortgaged property after deduction of charges against it.


views updated May 17 2018

Chancery in the UK, the Lord Chancellor's court, the highest court of judicature next to the House of Lords; but, since the Judicature Act of 1873 a division of the High Court of Justice. It formerly consisted of two distinct tribunals, one ordinary, being a court of common law, the other extraordinary, being a court of equity. To the former belonged the issuing of writs for a new parliament, and of all original writs. The second proceeded upon rules of equity and conscience, moderating the rigour of the common law, and giving relief in cases where there was no remedy in the common-law courts; it is in this role that it is shown in Dickens's Bleak House, presiding over the apparently interminable case of the Jarndyce estate, and entangling the many hopeless claimants who expect a judgement shortly.

The expression in chancery, referring to the head of a boxer or wrestler held under an opponent's head and being pummelled, derives from the tenacity and absolute control which the Court of Chancery was believed to exert, and to the certainty of cost and loss to property which was ‘in chancery’.


views updated May 23 2018

Chancery In England, court developed in the 15th century for the lord chancellor to deal with petitions from aggrieved persons for redress when no remedy was available in the common law courts. By the mid-17th century, Chancery had become a second system of law (equity) rather than a reforming agency. By the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (1925), the court of Chancery was merged into the High Court of Justice, of which it is now known as the Chancery Divison.


views updated May 14 2018

equity fair dealing XIV; (leg.) natural justice XVI, — (O)F. équité — L. æquitās, -tāt-, f. æquus fair; see EQUI-, -ITY.
So equitable fair, just XVII; valid in equity XVIII.


views updated May 21 2018


The old English court in which the monarch's secretary, or Chancellor, began hearing lawsuits during the fourteenth century.

The decisions rendered there were based on conscience and fairness rather than on the strict common-law forms of action. In the United States, courts like the old chancery have been called courts of chancery or courts of equity.