Understanding Equity and History Of Equity Courts

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Equity is an equivocal term. It is not a word that can be said to have a precise meaning. The term equity is used in diverse ways and it has multiple manifestations and senses. The original idea of it is synonymous with fairness and justice. Equity is the means whereby the law and its administration are made to approximate as closely as possible to the ideal of justice.

The term Equity can be used in different senses:

  • Firstly, there is justice and reasonable interpretation of the law. 
  • Secondly, there is the need to temper the law in its application to the individual case.
  • Thirdly, there is the need to supplement the shortcomings of the law. No system of law, early systems in particular, can boast of being able to provide reliefs for all possible situations. Gaps in the law often result in the gravest injustice.

Thus, Equity in the classic words of Sir Henry Maine, is “Any body of rules existing by the side of the original civil law, founded on distinct principles and claiming incidentally to supersede the civil law by virtue of a superior sanctity inherent in those principles”.

Sir Henry Maine while interpreting ‘Equity’, has observed, “In progressive societies social necessities and social opinions are always more or less, in advance of law. The gulf that is thus created between the social opinions and the existing law is bridged up by three instrumentalities, namely: (1) Legal Fiction, (ii) Equity, and (iii) Legislation.”

When Law becomes fixed, legal fictions liberalize it, when legal fictions also become outdated, Equity softens the rigors of law, till finally a point is reached when expansion of Equity ceases. 

History Of Equity Courts

As discussed earlier, by the middle of the 13th century the law administered in England, was in part of Customary law and in part of Statutory Law. The origin of Equity can be traced back to the end of the 13th century during the period of Norman Conquest in England. In England the original law was the Common Law, it was based on the common customs of the country which were administered by Common Law Courts. The Administration of Justice in Common Law Courts was based on the maxim Ibi Remedium Ubi Jus, which meant that ‘where there is a remedy there is a right’. Common Law was known as the law of remedy rather than the law of right. 

This resulted in curtailing the remedies available to the complainant under common law and because of this, injustice was done to the people. Gradually Common Law became a body of rules that provided limited remedy and which was incapable of growth. Towards the end of 13th Century, Administration of Justice by Common Law Courts reached new pinnacles as the King’s Bench, the Court of Common Plea and the Exchequer were established. 

In such cases a petition was made to the King-in-Council to exercise his extraordinary judicial powers. A custom developed by referring to these petitions by the ‘Chancellor’, who was the Chief of the King’s Secretaries. It was in dealing with these petitions that the ‘Chancellor’ began his judicial functions and the ‘Court of Chancery’ was established besides the Court of Common Law. The Chancellor acted according to his judicial conscience or the principles of natural justice. 

The principles and rules thus arising through the administration of justice in Courts of Chancery were called ‘Equity’ in contradiction to Common Law. In 1873 there remained two separate systems of Courts namely, Common Law Court and Chancery Court, but in 1873 both the Courts were amalgamated by Act of judicature and the new Courts were assigned with the power of enforcing all the rights and remedies legal as well as equitable.

Definitions Of Equity 

Multiple definitions have been attempted and the legal luminaries have tried their best to achieve the best possible definition of equity but the dynamic nature of equity makes any such attempt futile. 

Plato said, “Equity is indispensable to any intelligent administration of justice”.

According to Aristotle, ‘Justice and equity are neither absolutely the same nor generally different. His view is that the difference between justice and equity is only that of the degree. He further says that equity possesses a high degree of justice. It embodies a moral ideal and is constant and immutable.

Aristotle has also said that “Equity is the correction of the law which is defective on account of its generality.”

Blackstone defines Equity as the “Soul and spirit of all law; positive law is construed and natural law is made by it. In this way Equity is synonymous with justice in that it is the true and sound interpretation of the rule.”

West, J. says, “Equity is an intellectual energy. It is influenced by the gradual changes in the mental standpoint taken by successive generations. It thus molds its deductions from one set of data as the Common law to another into continued adaptation to the growing needs of society.”

Snell says that “In its technical sense Equity may be defined as a portion of natural justice which, although of a nature suitable for judicial enforcement was for historical reasons not enforced by the common law courts, there was an omission which was supplied by the court of Chancery.

Equity as a branch of Law

Equity as a branch of any legal system, may therefore be said to mean the principles or rules emerging from the administration of justice through a power and duty vested in the judges in those cases which are not covered or adequately provided for by the existing law of the land. The system of law prevailing in a State springs upon the basis of past cases or those that may be anticipated for future. It is impossible to prepare such a comprehensive code as to cover every possible case. It is, therefore, essential that there must be in the State a machinery which may, by notification or innovation, hold the existing body of law in the State. Equity fulfills this requirement of the society by supplementing the law and making it more liberal and kind. 

Equity, has in the words of Storey, “The sanction of jurists in ancient as well as in modern terms” and in this sense Equity must have in the words of the same learned writer, a place in every national system jurisprudence, if not in name, at least in substance very comprehensive.”

Nature & Scope Of Equity 

To a layman, equity must primarily mean right doing, or justice in the purely ethical meaning of that word. Nevertheless, to the learned Lawman in any legal system equity rarely retains that freshness of interpretation because some sort of technical significance tends to attach to it.

The scope of equity can’t be limited to few things but to quote Aristotle, “Equity is the correction of the law where it is defective on account of its generality,” and indeed Equity came to safeguard and promote the interest of justice against the rigidity, defects or deficiencies of the existing law in the

State and to achieve this end it generally extended its scope in supplementing the Common law in the following three respects by enforcing :

  • New Right. 
  • New Remedies. 
  • New Procedure


In a progressive society, the thoughts and ideas of the people go ahead of the law calling for equity to provide justice in cases of rigidity, defects or deficiencies of the existing law. Equity jurisdiction may be exercised by the common law courts or the special courts but with the development of the legal system, equity has been gradually assimilated into the statutory law.

Although, the importance and need of equity has diminished gradually with development of law through incorporation of the rules of equity into the statutory law, it is unlikely that the need and importance of equity can ever be dispensed with. It will continue to remain an important branch and source of law.