Chat with us, powered by LiveChat

How to Use the Doctrine of Unclean Hands

What is the Doctrine of Unclean Hands?

The doctrine of unclean hands is a legal principle that basically says; if you’re acting unethically or illegally, the court won’t help you out. It’s like that old saying, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” – you can’t break the rules and then expect the justice system to bail you out.In legalese, it states that a party who has acted unethically or in bad faith regarding the subject matter of a lawsuit, can’t seek equitable relief from the court. Basically, if you’re being shady, you can’t ask the court for special favors.

When Does the Unclean Hands Doctrine Apply?

This doctrine usually comes up in civil cases, not criminal ones. It’s used as an affirmative defense – meaning the defendant is saying “yeah, I did that thing, but the plaintiff was acting sketchy too.”It applies when the plaintiff is accused of willful misconduct directly relating to the issue in the lawsuit. So if you’re suing me for stealing your car, but it turns out you stole that car from someone else first – the unclean hands doctrine could get your case thrown out.The key things are:

- -
  • The misconduct has to be willful, not just an honest mistake
  • It has to directly relate to the issue being litigated
  • It’s about fairness – the court doesn’t want to aid someone acting in bad faith

How to Raise the Unclean Hands Defense

If you want to use this defense, you’ll need evidence that the plaintiff acted unethically regarding the specific issue in the case. Circumstantial evidence can work, but direct proof is better.Some examples of potential unclean hands:

  • Lying or destroying evidence
  • Violating laws/regulations related to the case
  • Acting in bad faith during negotiations
  • Fraud, misrepresentation, or deceit

The burden is on you (the defendant) to prove the plaintiff’s misconduct. Judges are hesitant to apply this doctrine without solid proof.You’ll make this an “affirmative defense” in your answer to the complaint. Basically stating “even if I did what plaintiff alleges, they were acting unethically too regarding this matter.”

Pros and Cons of the Unclean Hands Doctrine

Like most legal principles, the unclean hands doctrine has some pros and cons:Pros:

  • Promotes fairness and ethical conduct
  • Prevents the court from aiding illegal/unethical acts
  • Discourages misconduct and fraud


- -
  • Can let a guilty party off the hook if the other side acted unethically
  • Subjective – judges have discretion in applying it
  • Doesn’t deter initial misconduct by the defendant

There’s an argument that it creates a moral hazard – if you know the other side was shady, you may be more inclined to act unethically yourself.

Famous Examples of Unclean Hands

The doctrine has been applied in many high-profile cases over the years:

So in summary, if you want to use the unclean hands defense, be prepared to show solid evidence that the plaintiff engaged in direct, willful misconduct relating to the issues in the case. It’s an uphill battle, but can work in egregious situations.

Potential Defenses Against Unclean Hands

If the other side tries to use the unclean hands doctrine against you, there are a few potential counter-arguments:

Misconduct Was Too Remote

You can argue that the plaintiff’s alleged misconduct was too unrelated or remote from the issues in the case. Courts require a direct connection.

- -

Plaintiff’s Hands Are Clean Now

If the plaintiff has since corrected their past misconduct and “cleaned their hands”, you can argue the doctrine shouldn’t apply.

Balancing the Equities

The judge has to weigh the ethics of both sides’ conduct. You may be able to argue that your actions, while improper, were less egregious than the plaintiff’s.

Unclean Hands Doesn’t Apply to the Claim

Certain claims, like breach of contract, may not allow an unclean hands defense depending on the jurisdiction.The key is showing that equity favors your side, despite any potential misconduct. It’s a subjective balancing test.

- -

Unclean Hands in Specific Areas of Law

The doctrine is most commonly used in specific areas like:Contract Law
It prevents someone who induced a contract through fraud from enforcing it. But it’s a high bar – minor misconduct may not trigger unclean hands.Trademark Law
Unclean hands can block a trademark holder from enforcing their rights if they misrepresented their goods/services or committed other violations.Patent Law
An inventor who engaged in inequitable conduct like lying to the patent office may have unclean hands and be unable to stop infringement.Copyright Law
If a copyright holder’s work was created through plagiarism or derived from misappropriated material, they may be barred from suing for infringement.Real Estate
In property disputes, misconduct like lying about zoning issues or forging deeds could constitute unclean hands.So in areas where “equitable” remedies are sought, unclean hands is a potential defense if the plaintiff’s own conduct was sufficiently unethical.

Limitations of the Unclean Hands Doctrine

While a powerful defense, there are some key limitations to be aware of:

  • It only applies to equitable claims, not legal ones like damages. So it can’t be used against every type of lawsuit.
  • The misconduct has to relate directly to the subject matter of the litigation. Unrelated bad acts usually won’t qualify.
  • Public policy may sometimes override unclean hands, like in cases involving public health/safety.
  • It’s a discretionary doctrine – judges decide if the plaintiff’s conduct was sufficiently unethical to warrant dismissal.
  • Mere negligence or mistake is usually insufficient – the misconduct must be willful and intentional.

So it’s an imperfect defense that requires meeting a high burden of proof. But it can succeed in extreme cases of fraud or bad faith by the plaintiff.

Alternatives to Unclean Hands

If the unclean hands doctrine doesn’t quite fit, there are some alternative defenses that cover similar ground:In Pari Delicto
This allows a defendant to argue the plaintiff was equally at fault or involved in the same misconduct.Estoppel
Prevents a party from taking a legal position contradictory to their previous actions/conduct.Laches
Bars a claim if the plaintiff took too long to file it, causing prejudice to the defendant.Undue Influence
Allows setting aside transactions where one party took advantage of a position of power over the other.So while unclean hands is a common “equity” defense, it’s not the only way to raise issues with the plaintiff’s conduct.


The doctrine of unclean hands is all about fairness and ethics. If you’re asking a court for an equitable remedy, you better have clean hands yourself.It requires proving the other side willfully engaged in direct misconduct relating to the issues in the case. A tough standard, but it can succeed in extreme situations.Ultimately, it’s a balance of ethics – did the plaintiff’s actions so violate good faith that they don’t deserve the court’s assistance? If so, unclean hands may be a viable defense.

Delancey Street is here for you

Our team is available always to help you. Regardless of whether you need advice, or just want to run a scenario by us. We take pride in the fact our team loves working with our clients - and truly cares about their financial and mental wellbeing.

"Super fast, and super courteous, Delancey Street is amazing"
$500,000 MCA Restructured Over 3 Years
"Thanks for helping me in literally 24 hours"
$250,000 SBA Loan Offer in Compromise
"Great choice for business owners who need a trustworthy partner"
$350,000 MCA Restructured Over 2 Years

In The Media

Delancey Street CEO discusses ways to reward employees
Delancey Street CEO discusses the benefits of franchising on Forbes.
Delancey Street CEO discusses management on AMEX.
Best and Worst Student Loans in NY

As a student in New York, navigating the complex world…

Navigating Spousal Credit Card Debt: What You Need to Know

Will you pay your wife’s credit card debt? It’s a…

Divorce Debt Dilemma: Will You Foot Her Credit Bill?

Divorce is never easy, but when credit card debt enters…

Dividing Debt: Navigating Credit Card Obligations in Divorce

Divorce is a challenging process, both emotionally and financially. One…

Credit Card Forgiveness for Elderly: How to Apply

Credit Card Forgiveness for Elderly: How to Apply Credit card debt can be a significant…

Delancey Street simply gets it. You're talking to experts.
Steven Norris
Get Help Today

Ready To Get Started?

If you have questions, feel free to shoot us an email, or fill out our live chat.

Schedule Consultation