What is a Court of Chancery?

I’ve come across this term in both “Bartelby” and “Bleak House.” I really don’t understand the standard definition: court of equity. What does that mean? I understand that equity means fairness. But beyond that, I don’t really understand what this court did that couldn’t be done in a “regular” court. While NY’s chancery court was abolished in the early 1800’s (at least according to Melville in “Bartleby”) it still exists in Delaware . If a court of chancery wasn’t a common law court, then what law did they follow? What kinds of cases were heard? Did the judge just act as a sort of Solomon? Is this similar to today’s binding arbitration?

The common law distinguished between two forms of administering justice: “law” and “equity.” A court of law can award relief to a plaintiff in the form of money damages. A court of equity can accord other kinds of relief, such as an injunction.

To commence a lawsuit in order to resolve a private dispute may seem perfectly routine today, but it was a fairly new concept in ancient England–at least at the level of the national government–and it did not grow up overnight. Ancient justice was usually a private, local matter, where the feudal lord held court and physical or economic power was often more important than law or right. The idea gradually developed that certain matters fell within the “king’s peace,” where the central government would consistently administer a generally applied policy without respect to wealth or power. These cases were at first exceptions to the rule of local justice, and so the “forms of action” grew up as the precise technical procedures by which the petitioner invoked the royal writ against local feudal lord’s court. The local nobility was naturally jealous of any royal encroachment, so the forms of action were narrow and technical, and any deviation from the precise formula was fatal to the petitioner’s case. Dickens makes much of this exaltation of form over substance in Bleak House.

But sometimes the forms of action and the available legal remedies–that is, the relief available in a court of law–simply did not fit the case, and some other means of dispensing justice was necessary. It was for these exceptions that equity grew up. When the centralized nationwide system of law courts was growing up in the 11th and 12th centuries, the sovereign powers of judging and legislating were still largely undifferentiated, so obtaining judicial relief from the crown was an extraordinary process, almost as cumbersome as enacting general legislation. The delegation of judging particular cases to a centralized system was tolerable to the feudal nobility because the law courts’ powers were limited to those cases for which a “form of action” was available and for which money damages was the remedy.

For the other cases, where money damages were not a meaningful remedy and some other kind of relief was necessary–such as an order commanding or prohibiting some particular conduct, or relieving a party from a contractual duty–a special petition to the crown was still necessary. The officer of state who handled these cases was the chancellor, whose court was called the chancery. The chancery was not limited by the forms of action, and could fashion new writs and new remedies as the need arose. The chancery eventually evolved its own bureaucracy and became almost as routinely tolerated as the law courts. But the two judicial systems existed side by side for many centuries, and still do in some jurisdictions.

Most common-law jurisdictions have now merged the courts of law and the courts of equity: for example, a federal district court in the United States can hear both legal and equitable claims. Likewise, most jurisdictions have merged all the old forms of action into a single “civil action” that can encompass both legal and equitable claims, and a plaintiff can plead both kinds of claims in the same case: for example, a plaintiff may seek an order restoring some personal property that the defendant has converted to his or her own use or, in the alternative, money damages for the converted property (two claims that formerly would have required relief from different courts). A few jurisdictions have maintained the distinction in their court systems. But even in the jurisdictions with a single court system and a single form of civil action, the arcane distinction between law and equity can determine the relief available for certain kinds of claims.

Back in ye olde England, they had courts of law and courts of equity. The courts of equity were called chancery courts. They were introduced later than the courts of law as a reaction to the inflexibility of the common law.

If something bad happened to you, first you’d go to the local lord. But maybe the local lord wouldn’t give you justice, or whatever. Eventually, the monarch decided to set up limited royal courts. The courts were teh courts of law. They only had the power --conferred by the king – to issue certain kinds of writs; e.g., a writ of “trespass vi et armis” (wrong with force and arms). These gave these courts the power to give relief to people who could maintain a cause of action under one of the writs – if you could somehow fit your dispute into a writ, the royal court would help you out. If not, then you got no remedy from the king, and you’d have to turn to the local lord’s court, or an ecclesiastical court, or whatever.

But the courts of law were limited in what they could do. Though the king expanded the number of writs, the courts of law were very rigid. If you messed up in pleading your case, you lost. If you were a defendant, you could either challenge the law or the facts, but not both. But because the pleading rules were so opaque, you wouldn’t necessarily know what the lawsuit was about until trial. The courts of law had limited power to order the parties to turn over information about the case. Plus, the courts of law could only give the relief authorized by the particular writ (almost always money damages)

In reaction to the deficiencies of the courts of law, the chancery courts were created. Instead of being narrow hidebound decisionmakers, the equity courts would broadly investigate the facts and etc. You didn’t have to fit into a narrow “writ” category to be eligible for relief. The equity judges developed their own doctrine of law to resolve disputes. They could also give different kinds of remedies than those given by the courts of law. So if you wanted an injunction instead of money damages, you’d have to go to the chancery court. Of course, because the chancery court was designed as a gap-filler, you could only be elible to sue in the chancery court if there was “no adequate remedy at law”: i.e., your dispute wasn’t something the legal courts could handle. The chancery courts became infamous for their lengthy proceedings and endless rounds of pleadings and discovery.

Basically, in modern states, the courts of law and equity are combined into one court. However, there have been big changes from the pleading rules from both the law courts and the equity courts. Today’s complex, multi-party cases with endless discovery are closer to what equity courts would have done.

ack. i like your answer better, brianmelendez.

As noted, there are still a few U.S. states which have not merged law and equity, such as Virginia, where I am licensed. Suits for money damages need to be filed on the “law side,” while demands for injunctions are filed in equity. (This is a purely formal distinction, as the cases are heard by the same judges in the same courtrooms.) Equitable actions don’t have juries – they are all decided by the judge, called a chancellor when sitting in equity. Also, due to equity’s historical mission of doing “justice” in a more rough and ready fashion than the technical legal forms of action, plaintiffs in equity must not have “unclean hands”; that is, they can’t have done anything wrong, illegal, or questionable in relation to the transaction at issue, even if that wrongdoing wouldn’t directly foreclose their remedy.

As brian mentioned, the federal courts have a merged bar – however, there still persists some legal/equitable distinctions. For instance, the Seventh Amendment, which guarantees jury trials in civil suits applies only at law – there were really never juries at equity. However, now that there is a merged bar, the question can arise in federal civil suits whether a given action is legal or equitable in nature so as to require a jury whould any party request it – the rule is that the court needs to look to whether such an action would have been heard at law or in equity in 1791, when the 7th Amendment was ratified, and then decide on that basis whether a jury is appropriate or not.


The one jurisdiction I’m familiar with that retains the distinction is Delaware, where most major U.S. companies are incorporated. The Delaware Chancery Court has evolved into the most sophisticated corporate law bench in the United States. (In fact, that’s arguably the most important reason companies continue to incorporate in Delaware - they know that if they’re subjected to shareholder litigation, it won’t go before some yahoo judge who hasn’t looked at corporate issues since the bar exam).

To oversimplify a bit, “law” courts were fine when you could be made whole with money. “Equity/chancery” courts were for when money alone won’t work - you wanted the defendant to do something (or not do something, as the case may be). When you wanted both, life got interesting.

I’m still not certain what you do in places like Delaware in Virginia today: Cliffy, p’raps you could tell us? Let’s say that I have a shop next door to restaurant. The restaurant develops fan problems and starts blowing nasty odors onto my property, costing me sales. I want compensation for lost sales, and I want a court order forcing the restaurant to get improved ventilation. Where do I file my case? Or do I file two separate cases, like in the old days?

I spent about a year working with a local historian sorting and filing chancery court papers in New Kent, VA (some of the cases were from the mid-1800s). Most of the cases were neighbors suing neighbors, or relatives suing relatives regarding land disputes. The plaintiffs were usually seeking damages and injunctive relief and most of the cases dragged on for years.

To add to the excellent summaries above, equity was originally based on the idea of conscience, growing out of the canon law of the church. (Until Sir/St. Thomas More, the Chancellor was always a bishop or high ranking priest.) “Sure, at law you’re allowed to throw the widow out, because she only made an oral contract with you for the lease, not a written one - but in conscience, you shouldn’t go against your word.” That sort of analysis, originally. So the Chancery specialised in things like trusts and guardianship of infants, where promises to do things might not be enforcable at common law, but were enforceable as a matter of equity and conscience.

Thanks for the fantastic answers, proving once again that the SDMB has the most erudite posters on the internet!