Earl of Oxford Case: Conflict between Common Law and Equity (2022)

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Published: 30th Sep 2021

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The Earl of Oxford’s case of 1615 occupies a rather unique position in the development of the English legal system and is frequently referred to as the corner stone of equity in the modern English legal system. It could be said that the case shares an Ipso Factorelationship with the Court of Chancery, with each party relying; unconsciously on the others existence for their development. Ipso Facto is a phrase believed to have been made popular by Thomas Gray poet and historian in the 18th century with it’s origins to be found in Old English and Latin.

It is probably appropriate to explore the background behind the Earl of Oxford’s case

Which was concerned with a parcel of land in London which Henry VIII had gifted to Thomas, Lord Audley, as a reward for procuring the trial and eventual execution of Anne Boleyn By his will Lord Audley left the land to Magdalene College, Cambridge,who subsequently sold it and which were indirectly acquired by the Earl of Oxford.

Magdalene College then challenged the Earl of Oxford’s title to the land on the basis of a statute which prohibited the sale of College lands but against this was the fact that, as part of the original sale, Magdalene College had made an immediate transfer to Queen Elizabeth with the deliberate intention of circumventing the statute.

Magdalene College action acted as the catalyst for the dispute between common law and equity,the dispute set the two Leviathans’ of the English legal system on a confrontational path. Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and Thomas Edgerton, Lord Ellesmere, Lord Chancellor. Coke’s agenda was the curtailment of the powers of the Lord Chancellor.

Coke’s complaint was that the Chancellor’s practice of granting injunctions in Chancery to prevent the enforcement of common law judgments which was in breach of statutes designed to prevent appeals from the common law courts.

The Earl of Oxford’s case alleged that the judgment of Coke G.J had been obtained fraudulently. The Lord Chancellor through the Court of Chancery then issued a common injunction on the basis of an unconscionable advantage which had developed in favour of the Magdalene College which denied the Earl of Oxford’s rights to adequate compensation for loss of title, resulting from the enforcement of the common law order against the Earl of Oxford for breaching the statute.

(Video) Common Law & Equity

The two jurisdictions then become estranged and a stalemate situation ensued, with no compromise on either side which eventually led to the impasse being referred to the Attorney-General, Sir Francis Bacon, who partitioned the King. The Attorney-General acting on the authority of James I, upheld the use of the common injunction issued by the Lord Chancellor and concluded that in the event of any conflict between the two jurisdictions of common law and equity, equity would prevail.

Common law rules must lead to an unjust or unconscionable outcome. Otherwise, the Lord Chancellor has no jurisdiction to interfere.

The Earl of Oxford’s case demonstrates how fragile and susceptible equity was to political upheaval during the 17th century. Equity was dependent for it’s authority upon the Kings’ prerogative during this period, it was significantly jeopardised by events such as the overthrow of Charles I. The rule of Cromwell during the interregnum. Cromwell (proposed the abolition of Chancery, which he described as ‘the greatest grievance in the nation’) and the Glorious Revolution in 1689.

Although, the restoration in some measure indicated equity’s return to prominence, it continued to remain in a state of flux throughout the 17th century.

In 1690, a bill was proposed that would reverse the Earl of Oxford’s case, fortunately it never progressed into law.

Had it passed the bill passed into law, one can only speculate as to the effects that it would have had on the English legal system and the commonwealths’ system of law.

Equity’s pre-eminence in the English legal system was later enshrined in section 25. Judicature Act 1873-1875which also served to codify the two jurisdictions with equitable rules prevailing in cases of conflict between the jurisdictions. Uniform procedures in the new court system and court administration allowed for common law and equity to be heard in the same courts. W Ashburnersummarised the situation thus “the two streams of jurisdiction, though they run in the same channel, run side by side and do not mingle their waters”.

The court of equity was known as the corrective instrument to common law, often determining cases according to reason and ‘good conscience’. Common law,originally operated under the doctrine of stare decisis which was strictly applied where possible to all common law. This meant the law did not develop even when it was obviously in need of change. Strict procedural rules were followed and the only remedy available was damages. Equitywas known to enforce the personal obligation; while common law only recognised the legal title.

The Lord Chancellor in the Court of Chancery was not bound by precedent. Instead rules and maxims of equity were developed. These were flexible to ensure even-handedness and fairness. The Court of Chancery recognised the limits of usefulness of money and created new remedies including injunctions and the order of specific performance. There are a number of maxims which are synonymous with equity, they are as follows:

  • Equity follows the law
  • One who comes to equity is assumed to come with clean hands
  • Delay defeats equity
  • Equality is equity
  • Equity looks to the intent rather than the form
  • Equity acts in personam

The English legal system was at it’s nadir following the Norman Conquest 1066A system of primary law was introduced by the Normans, which existed for the next two hundred years in the generalised form of feudal law. Magna Carta 1215sought to introduce a more formalised, equitable system of law for the entire kingdom.

Equity could be seen as a by-product of this process. Under the jurisdiction of equity the Provision of Oxford 1258restricted the issue of writs to a new type of action in an attempt at reforming the system of law that existed. Common law is purported to have existed since time immemorial and was fixed by the Statute of Westminster 1 of 1275on 3rd of September 1189, the date of Richard I’s accession to the throne.

The disparity which existed between the two jurisdictionshas been modified by a series of statutes in an attempt at unifying the jurisdictions; beginning with the Chancery Amendment Act 1850which gave the court of Chancery the ability to be able to grant the common law remedy of damages.

The Common law Procedure Act 1852-1856which gave the common law courts the ability to be able to issue equitable remedies. And finally we see the Judicature Act 1873-1875 which attempted further amalgamation with reference to the two jurisdictions.

(Video) 2 7 Common Law and Equity

It is important to note that the division between common law and equity is not as pronounced as the Earl of Oxford’s case would lead us to believe.

Equitable doctrines, such as estoppels’ were increasingly imported into common law, but these were always treated as entirely common law doctrines, (estoppel by presentation).

Common law also accepted that equitable interests could be devised.

Pawlett v Attorney-General (1667)

Trustees were entitled to damages for loss suffered by the beneficiary in actions on contract. Robinson v Wait (1853)

Whether a plaintiffs copyright is held on trust for another was taken into account when determining their rights. Sims v Marryat (1851)

Leases invalid in equity were also invalid at common law.

Phillips v Clagett (1843)

Equitable interests were frequently accepted by common law in the environment of an action in tort or on a contract. The recognition had the effect of modifying common law entitlements and was extensively referred to when contextualising the claim.

Equity and common law were conceptually distinct; the following examples illustrate this point. Rights in equity could not found a basis for actions in court of common law (unless the action was founded on a common law right in tort or under contract);

Rights in equity could not be relied upon to defend a common law action;

Legal rights could not be decided by a court of equity unless they were admitted by a part or judgment had previously been obtained in a common law court;

Legal damages could not be awarded in equity (Lord Cairns Act (1859)), which enabled damages to be awarded by a court of equity either in addition to or instead of specific performance; Common law courts could not award equitable remedies or make declarations.

(Video) History of Equity | Equity & Trusts

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(Video) The Conflict between Law and Equity Part 3

FAQs

What was the conflict between equity and common law? ›

When there was a conflict between the two, equity would use a remedy which had the effect of preventing common law action from proceeding or prevent the common law judgement from being enforced. One such conflict occurred in the Earl of Oxford's Case [2] , where the court of common law ordered the payment of a debt.

What happened in the Earl of Oxford case? ›

Lord Ellesmere LC, issued a common injunction out of the Court of Chancery prohibiting the enforcement of the common law order, and granting the Earl of Oxford and his tenants quiet enjoyment of the land, in other words meaning that the statute did not void the initial transaction of the land.

Who brought an end to the rivalry between the Court of Chancery and the common law? ›

Lord Somers, following his dismissal as lord chancellor, introduced an Act in 1706 which "became the most important act of law reform which the 18th century produced". The Act significantly amended the existing law and court procedure, and while most of it was aimed at the common-law courts, it did affect the Chancery.

What is the relationship between the common law and equity? ›

Common law and equitable right has two different function in that, common law establishes general rules which provide certainty, while, equitable rights acts as a check and balance of common law. This arises from the strict application of the common law.

When there are conflicts between the common law and equity law the rules of common law shall prevail? ›

The Attorney-General acting on the authority of James I, upheld the use of the common injunction issued by the Lord Chancellor and concluded that in the event of any conflict between the two jurisdictions of common law and equity, equity would prevail. Common law rules must lead to an unjust or unconscionable outcome.

What happened to common law and equity law? ›

Although the jurisdictions were merged, the two systems of rules, (common law and equity), remained separate. Although all courts may apply both rules, equitable remedies (e.g., the right to an injunction) are even today contrasted with common law remedies (e.g., the right to damages).

Where there is equal equity the law prevails? ›

According to maxim where equities are equal the first in time shall prevail, the mortgages rank in order of time. If C, by paying off A's mortgage, obtains the legal estate, i.e., obtains conveyance of A's estate and an assignment of his securities, he is entitled to precedence over B and also to the first mortgage.

Who seeks equity must do equity? ›

"A person who seeks equity must come with clean hands. He, who comes to the Court with false claims, cannot plead equity nor the Court would be justified to exercise equity jurisdiction in his favour. A person who seeks equity must act in a fair and equitable manner."

What is equity follows the law? ›

Equity Follows the Law

As such when a rule is direct, clear and applicable to a certain case, the Courts of Chancery cannot deviate from the ruling of common law courts. It should also be noted that just like the Courts of Common Law, the Courts of Chancery are bound by provisions of a statute.

Does equity violate the rule of law? ›

Yes, it violates it No, upholds it

AV Dicey: “no man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary legal manner before the ordinary Courts of the land.”

When did common law and equity merge? ›

The early amendments of the United States Constitution explicitly acknowledged common law and equity as being clear divisions of jurisprudence. However, Rule 2 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure came into effect in 1938 to unite common law with equitable claims.

What were the cause of equity in England? ›

Equity originated with the Courts of Chancery, which sought to mitigate the harshness of the early common law. As a court of conscience, equity was not bound by the rigours of the common law. The Courts of equity were synonymous with conscience, fairness and even-handed dealing.

Does common law override equity? ›

Equity follows the law Equity never overrules or invalidates the common law and always, where possible, attempts to follow it. If the common law is defective, equity may provide an alternative Page 3 cause of action but it cannot actually overrule or invalidate a legal principle.

Does common law prevail over equity? ›

Court of equity prevails over common law and may provide specific performance rather than a monetary compensation. o Equity supplements the general law by intervening in cases where the CL is in some respect deficient.

Does equity follow the common law? ›

Equity defines a set of legal principles, in all the jurisdictions that follow the English common law tradition, that supplements strict rules of law where their application would operate harshly, and this is done to achieve “natural justice (Anon. Historical Outlines of Equity).

What are the conflicting goals of common law? ›

The common law attempts to accommodate the conflicting goals of predictability and flexibility.

Which remedy is available under common law and equity? ›

An introduction to various remedies available in equity, including rectification, specific performance, injunctions, estoppel, account of profits, subrogation, rescission, declarations and liens.

What is the difference between common law and doctrine of equity? ›

Differences between common law and equity are the common law uses money as the only remedy where as equity seeks another juridical remedies or even monetary remedies. Common law uses previous cases to support and decide new cases and equity law is based on the written laws and decisions are made in equitable way.

Why did common law get Cancelled? ›

The show was canceled by the USA Network after one season and 12 episodes on October 31, 2012, due to low ratings.

What happens if there is a conflict between common law and statute law? ›

Statute law always prevails over common law if there is a conflict. The common law relies on the principle of precedent. This means that courts are to be guided by previous decisions of courts, particularly courts that have higher authority.

Why equity is important in common law? ›

Plato stated “equity is a necessary element supplementary to the imperfect generalisation of legal rules”. The term equity refers to the moral aspect of law where fairness and good conscious are taken into account when deciding case outcomes.

Can equality and equity coexist? ›

Equality and equity may be inherently different but are also bound together. In order to create true equality of opportunity, equity is needed to ensure that everyone has the same chance of getting there.

Are equity and common law fused? ›

The Chancery and common law courts were now fused into one; but whether this constituted a fusion of law and equity has remained a contested issue ever since.

What is an example of equity law? ›

In a civil lawsuit the court will award monetary damages, however, equity was formed when monetary damages could not adequately deal with the loss. An example of this is if someone is infringing on a trademark of yours, you can get monetary damages for the loss, but your business could be ruined if they continue.

What are the two principles of equity? ›

Equity in terms of contributive capacity is generally considered in two senses: vertical and horizontal. The “horizontal” concept is that those who are in a similar situation, in terms of contributive capacity, should pay the same amount of tax.

What is the fight for equity? ›

These concepts are often confused for one another but mean two very different things. Fighting for equality is to fight for everyone to receive the same education. Fighting for equity is to fight for everyone to receive the education they need to be successful.

What is equity in simple words? ›

The term “equity” refers to fairness and justice and is distinguished from equality: Whereas equality means providing the same to all, equity means recognizing that we do not all start from the same place and must acknowledge and make adjustments to imbalances.

Is equity a legal principle? ›

A legal definition from the Oxford dictionary describes equity as 'a branch of law that developed alongside common law and is concerned with fairness and justice, formerly administered in special courts'.

What are the 3 equitable remedies? ›

There are three types of equitable remedies: specific performance, injunction, and restitution.

What are the consequences of violation of principle of equity? ›

Two negative effects of equity, if violated are given below: [a] Dissatisfaction among employees leading to greater employee turnover. [b] It emerges poor relations between workers and managers.

Are the courts of law and equity still separate? ›

In other states, the courts of common law were empowered to exercise equity jurisdiction. Today, separate courts of chancery have largely been abolished, as the same court that may fashion a legal remedy has the power to prescribe an equitable one.

What is equity in the common law tradition? ›

Equity – in English common law tradition, a body of legal princi- ples that emerged to supplement the common law when the strict rules of its application would limit or prevent a just outcome. Precedent – a judicial decision in a court case that may serve as an authoritative example in future similar caseses.

What is equity explain the history of equity in England? ›

Equity itself is derived from a Latin word which means Justice and egalitarianism. It is a system of law which emanated in the English chancery and encompasses a formal body of indispensable and procedural rules and doctrine, that appendage or override common and statutory law.

When did equity start in England? ›

In 18th-century England the Court of Chancery administered equity, and the church courts... These developments resulted in the fashioning by the chancellor of new equitable remedies.

What were the defects of common law? ›

There was much bribery and corruption at Common Law. Also, the common law courts used juries which could be intimidated and corrupted. This caused a person with low social standing was very difficult to succeed. This was because persons of wealth and power could put pressure on the courts to decide for their favour.

Why did we get equity out of common law? ›

Equity is a body of principles and procedures which developed side by side with the common law and statute law. Early common law was rigid and could produce arbitrary and unjust results in many cases. Equity originated with the Courts of Chancery, which sought to mitigate the harshness of the early common law.

Why did equity prevail over common law? ›

The law of equity arose so that any unexpectedly harsh consequences of a strict application of the law of precedent from common-law could be mitigated, originally by appeal to the King (and subsequently to the Court of Chancery). Fairness was, and still is, at the heart of the principle of equity.

What are the conflicting goals of common law? ›

The common law attempts to accommodate the conflicting goals of predictability and flexibility.

What were the key differences between equity and the common law in medieval England? ›

The much older system of law was the common law, which was administered by the King's Benches. Equity was viewed essentially as a more modern body of legal doctrine that served to supplement the coercive old law. It is worth noting that these two systems of law were largely identical and in harmony.

Does common law override equity? ›

Equity follows the law Equity never overrules or invalidates the common law and always, where possible, attempts to follow it. If the common law is defective, equity may provide an alternative Page 3 cause of action but it cannot actually overrule or invalidate a legal principle.

Does common law prevail over equity? ›

Court of equity prevails over common law and may provide specific performance rather than a monetary compensation. o Equity supplements the general law by intervening in cases where the CL is in some respect deficient.

Does equity violate the rule of law? ›

Yes, it violates it No, upholds it

AV Dicey: “no man is punishable or can be lawfully made to suffer in body or goods except for a distinct breach of law established in the ordinary legal manner before the ordinary Courts of the land.”

When did common law and equity fuse? ›

What did the makers of the Judicature Acts understand by 'fusion'? By the middle of 1851, the 'fusion of law and equity' had become 'the slang of the day'.

When did common law and equity merge? ›

The early amendments of the United States Constitution explicitly acknowledged common law and equity as being clear divisions of jurisprudence. However, Rule 2 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure came into effect in 1938 to unite common law with equitable claims.

What were the defects of common law? ›

There was much bribery and corruption at Common Law. Also, the common law courts used juries which could be intimidated and corrupted. This caused a person with low social standing was very difficult to succeed. This was because persons of wealth and power could put pressure on the courts to decide for their favour.

What happens when two laws conflict? ›

Conflict of laws refers to a difference between the laws of two or more jurisdictions with some connection to a case, such that the outcome depends on which jurisdiction's law will be used to resolve each issue in dispute.

What are the sources of conflict of laws? ›

conflict of laws, also called private international law, the existence worldwide, and within individual countries, of different legal traditions, different specific rules of private law, and different systems of private law, all of which are administered by court systems similarly subject to different rules and ...

What is different between common law and equity law? ›

Common law usually awards monetary damages in certain cases, but equity can decree for someone to act or not to act on something. In cases wherein the aggrieved party does not want monetary damages, the defendant can be ordered to return what he has taken.

What are the differences between common law and doctrine of equity? ›

Differences between common law and equity are the common law uses money as the only remedy where as equity seeks another juridical remedies or even monetary remedies. Common law uses previous cases to support and decide new cases and equity law is based on the written laws and decisions are made in equitable way.

What is the relationship between common law and equity as sources of law in the English legal system? ›

Common law and equity

In this context, common law means the judge-made law of the King's Bench; whereas equity is the judge-made law of the (now-defunct) Court of Chancery. Equity is concerned mainly with trusts and equitable remedies.

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