Action at Law: What Is It and How Does It Differ from Equity?
An action at law is a type of lawsuit that seeks a legal remedy, such as money damages, for a wrong done or a right violated by another party. For example, if someone breaches a contract or commits a tort against you, you can file an action at law to recover compensation for your losses.
An action at law is different from an action in equity, which seeks an equitable remedy, such as an injunction, a specific performance, or a declaratory judgment. Equitable remedies are usually granted when legal remedies are inadequate or impractical. For example, if someone is infringing on your trademark, you can file an action in equity to stop them from using it.
The distinction between actions at law and actions in equity dates back to the English common law system, where different courts handled different types of cases. Today, most jurisdictions have merged the two systems and allow both legal and equitable remedies to be sought in the same court. However, some procedural rules and principles still depend on whether the case is classified as legal or equitable.
Some of the factors that may affect the classification of a case are:
- The nature of the right involved. Some rights are purely legal (such as property rights) while others are purely equitable (such as trust rights).
- The type of relief requested. Some remedies are exclusively legal (such as damages) while others are exclusively equitable (such as injunctions).
- The historical origin of the cause of action. Some causes of action originated in the courts of law (such as contract and tort) while others originated in the courts of equity (such as fraud and estoppel).
- The availability of a jury trial. Generally, actions at law are entitled to a jury trial while actions in equity are decided by a judge.
Therefore, it is important to know whether your case is an action at law or an action in equity, as it may affect your rights and obligations in the litigation process.
Examples of Actions at Law and Actions in Equity
To illustrate the difference between actions at law and actions in equity, here are some examples of cases that could be filed in either system:
- A breach of contract case. If someone fails to perform their obligations under a contract, the other party can file an action at law to recover damages for the breach. Alternatively, the other party can file an action in equity to compel the breaching party to perform the contract (specific performance) or to cancel the contract (rescission).
- A personal injury case. If someone causes physical harm to another person by negligence or intentional wrongdoing, the injured person can file an action at law to recover damages for their medical expenses, pain and suffering, and other losses. Alternatively, the injured person can file an action in equity to prevent the wrongdoer from causing further harm (injunction) or to declare their rights and obligations (declaratory judgment).
- A property dispute case. If someone claims ownership or possession of a piece of land or a personal item that belongs to another person, the rightful owner can file an action at law to recover the property or its value (replevin or ejectment). Alternatively, the rightful owner can file an action in equity to establish their title to the property (quiet title) or to prevent the other person from interfering with their use and enjoyment of the property (nuisance).
Advantages and Disadvantages of Actions at Law and Actions in Equity
Depending on the circumstances of the case, filing an action at law or an action in equity may have some advantages and disadvantages. Some of the factors that may influence the choice of remedy are:
- The adequacy of the remedy. Legal remedies are usually adequate when money can compensate for the harm suffered, while equitable remedies are usually adequate when money cannot provide complete relief or when irreparable harm is likely to occur.
- The availability of the remedy. Legal remedies are usually available as a matter of right, while equitable remedies are usually discretionary and subject to equitable defenses and maxims.
- The timeliness of the remedy. Legal remedies are usually retrospective and awarded after the harm has occurred, while equitable remedies are usually prospective and awarded before or during the occurrence of harm.
- The complexity of the remedy. Legal remedies are usually simple and straightforward, while equitable remedies are usually complex and flexible.
- The enforceability of the remedy. Legal remedies are usually enforceable by execution or garnishment, while equitable remedies are usually enforceable by contempt or sequestration.