The idea of balancing the equities has existed in the legal sphere since classical Greek times, when Plato wrote about the difficulty of balancing the law as set forth and a sense of fairness. The phrase refers to a type of judgment that may go beyond the law when the law is deemed to be inadequate. This idea often turns up in real estate disputes and environmental law, where to obey the letter of the law would be to do an injustice to the situation. Despite the extensive number of laws on the books, the legal system is not always perfect, and balancing the equities in legal cases is an attempt to rectify the situation.
For most people, the term conjures up an image of a higher natural law, where conscience and humanity are considered in a judicial ruling as well as the letter of the law on the subject. Historically, England had separate legal and equity courts designed to recognize this distinction, and to attempt to make up for the inadequacies of the legal system. This system was also used in the United States until it was determined that common law courts should be allowed to make equitable decisions as well as legal ones.
Balancing the equities often turns up in real estate cases because there are numerous factors outside the law to consider. For example, a community might sue a developer for withdrawing from a project. The letter of the law might determine that the suit is not valid, but a judge might decide that the community does need equitable reparations to compensate for preparations made for a development that never happened. In this case, the judge has weighed the letter of the law while also looking at ethical considerations, and has determined that the developer is in the wrong in some ethical sense, if not legally.
In American law, there are a specific set of procedures to be taken into account when balancing the equities, and judges are expected to weigh legal, humanistic, environmental, and ethical considerations. Many citizens have often felt that the law fell short of justice, and that a legal judgment did not satisfy them, and this is what these procedures are designed to address. Balancing the equities allows judges to incorporate humanism into their legal practice, and builds a stronger legal system that accounts for issues normally outside legal jurisprudence.