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In Law, what are Unclean Hands?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2016
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“Unclean hands” is a legal concept that touches on the behavior of people who are parties to a suit. Essentially, when a person or entity has unclean hands, their actions surrounding the issues of the suit have been criminal or illegal in some ways, and due to this, they’re not entitled to what they would ordinarily obtain even if a case otherwise has merit. A similar concept may exist in criminal cases, where prosecutors who commit illegal acts to obtain evidence may not be able to successfully prosecute their cases because all such evidence would be inadmissible; this is not quite the same from a legal standpoint. Most often, the issue of unclean or clean hands is seen in civil cases where one party sues another for some form of legal redress.

While not all jurisdictions may consider the matter of whether someone bringing a suit has clean hands, many of them do. It should be noted that it is the person who has instigated the lawsuit that must prove his or her hands are clean, if the matter is brought up by the other party/parties. When it can be clearly shown that someone or an entity has unclean hands, this gives judges certain rights. In many cases, they may be able to dismiss a case because the person bringing suit did not act in a legal way.

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There are a number of ways someone or several people might have unclean hands. The most common is that they’ve committed some form of fraudulent action. For example, they could have fraudulently obtained a contract with someone and are now suing that person to collect the money they feel is owed to them. In these circumstances the fact that the company has not acted cleanly and reputably is frequently enough to void their entitlement to any money.

There are examples of unclean hands in plenty of suits between former spouses over issues like spousal and child support. The person suing to collect back or present payments may only be entitled to these if he or she has been honest about financial matters and hasn’t behaved in any way that would “dirty” the hands. For instance, paying someone to threaten the spouse who hasn’t made regular payments could void rights to collect payments. This matter may be slightly more complex on the issue of child support, since children cannot be held responsible for the bad actions of a parent.

Ultimately what the idea of unclean hands represents is that people must behave in legal ways to retain their rights to recover damages. When they fail to do this, they may find they no longer have an actionable case. People defending in a suit may very well try to establish that the other party has unclean hands as a way of escaping payment. If evidence is strong, such escape could be possible.

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