Foundations of landlord and tenant law – part 4
I had thought of leaving this bit out, as it is not essential to landlord and tenant law. But it is an important part of our legal history and comes into all sorts of things, so I thought I had better just mention it. Anyway, it makes a good story, and I might want to refer back to it later.
How it all started
In the beginning, i.e. before William the Conqueror, there were lots of different courts and laws. Every manor would have its own local court, and a lot of the decisions there were based on local customs.
However, after the conquest (1066) William and his heirs would send out their own Judges around the country to dispense justice. From the decisions of these Judges (kept in a central record), developed the ‘common law’, which applied everywhere. As opposed to the local laws and customs which only applied in the local courts.
Gradually the local courts sort of faded away, and the centralised common law took over. However it became very formulaic and rigid, and this resulted in many injustices. As the King is the font of all justice, people would petition him for relief from the harshness of the common law.
Originally the King would deal with these himself, but pretty soon (about in the reign of Edward 1) they got passed over to one of his officials to deal with for him. This official was the Chancellor and his court became known as the Court of Chancery. It sat mostly in Westminster Hall (pictured).
Clean hands and the Court of Chancery
From then on, and particularly from about 1400 onwards, the Chancellors court developed a system of law all of its own, which became known as ‘equity’. The reason for this is that the court was a ‘court of conscience’ which was concerned with fairness (equity) rather than the strict procedural law of the Kings Courts.
However, to take advantage of the equitable rules in the court of Chancery, you had to have behaved fairly yourself. This is set out in one of the ‘maxims’ of the court – “he who comes to equity must come with clean hands”.
Equity and law
The rights people had under the Kings Courts were known as common law or legal rights. The rights enforced by the Chancellor were ‘rights in equity’ or ‘equitable rights’.
Generally, equitable rights were things to do with trusts and family law, and the Court of Chancery specialised in trusts and the administration of estates, guardianship and insanity, and charities.
The Kings Courts only normally awarded money to the winner, so the Court of Chancery developed other remedies such as injunctions, specific performance, and recession of contracts (i.e. putting people in the position they were before the contract was made).
A conflict of laws?
So then we had these two separate courts and legal systems running side by side. Both with their own remedies and rules. Over time the court of chancery became every bit as formulaic and hidebound as the common law of the Kings Courts.
It is the Court of Chancery which is so wonderfully portrayed in Dickens’ Bleak House (quite my favourite Dickens book) where the interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce sucks life and joy out of all who come in contact with it.
A mixed marriage
Influenced no doubt by Dickens, the two courts were eventually merged in the 1873 and 1875 Supreme Court of Judicature Acts. This finally dissolved the Court of Chancery and created a new unified High Court of Justice.
However, they could not get rid of the court of chancery entirely, as the work done was quite different from the work in the common law courts. There is to this very day a Chancery Division of the High Court which deals with chancery matters.
The separate rights created by the Court of Chancery are still known as equitable rights and are treated differently to the common law or ‘legal’ rights. If there is ever a conflict between the two, the general rule is that equity will prevail over law. Unless of course, the claimant comes to court (figuratively speaking) with dirty hands.
If you want to learn more about equity and the Court of Chancery you will find an excellent (if rather dry) description and history in Wikipedia.
Photo credits – the Bayeux tapestry picture is reproduced by kind permission of Reading Museum www.bayeuxtapestry.org.uk (copyright Reading Museum), Westminster Hall the Court of Chancery and Charles Dickens are Wikipedia Commons pictures.