The idea of equity as a legal doctrine is designed to prevent injustice that might occur by a strict application of a particular rule of law. Basically, a court can override the strict textual confines of a particular piece of law and make a ruling that is fairer under the circumstances. While this doctrine is firmly established and of no lesser standing than other means of judicial decision making, I’ve noticed that some courts strongly disfavor it. Some lawyers & judges view equitable arguments as a specious “hail Mary” indicative of an inherently losing position. I could not disagree more.
No particular law can specifically cover every set of circumstances that might arise. Equity, by design, is a way to conform the law to human events that are often more nuanced than mere words of legal text.
Consider two friends one of whom owns 40 acres, twenty of which he’s going to sell the other. The twenty acres being sold to Friend has the only access road to both parcels. Original Owner and Friend agree that Original Owner has an easement over the road on Friend’s 20 acres. Time passes and friends have a falling out; Friend revokes Original Owner’s use of the easement.
Assume that they end up in court. Friend asserts that he had the right to change his mind about the easement because any agreement they had was merely verbal, i.e., that for it to be binding it had to be in writing pursuant to Civil Code 1624 (among others). Assume Friend is correct in his assertion that per the code the agreement was supposed to be in writing. What is the correct ruling? Is Original Owner out of luck? Does Original Owner now have no way on to his property?
The law contemplates this kind of situation by the equitable doctrine of “estoppel”. Estoppel says that while Friend is correct in his assertion the agreement needing to be in writing, he is “estopped” from asserting that defense because it would lead to an unfairness caused by Friend’s own acts. Thus, by estoppel the easement would be valid and Friend would be stuck with his oral promises. Despite the fact that most people would think this is the correct result, it is amazing how many courts shy away from equity and rely strictly on the black & white text of the code indicating that the agreement should have been in writing.
Why the gun-shyness about employing equity? My opinion is that some judges and lawyers cannot think outside the box into more subtle areas. Observe that the writing requirement of Civil Code 1624 has the benefit of being concrete, identifiable, numbered, codified, quotable, and called a “code”. Conversely, the law of estoppel has the disadvantage of being un-codified, un-numbered, not quotable as a single statement of law, and called “a doctrine.” It’s easy to see how the differences in ostensive tangibility lead a certain type to disfavor the nuanced ideas of equity and gravitate toward the apparent clarity of black & white text.
Case law and even many codes are perfectly clear that if facts warrant equity should be employed to avoid unjust results. The resistance of some lawyers/judges in applying the doctrine of equity is a mystery to me.