Archive for November, 2018

Back to Square One: Revisiting “Maxims of Equity”

Saturday, November 3rd, 2018

What in the world is a “maxim” and how does this term relate to Mississippi chancery court proceedings? To put it simply, a maxim, within the context of custody and divorce law, is a truism that cannot be avoided. Maxims represent well-established principles of law and are deeply rooted in what the English legal system regards as law “agreeable to natural reason”. In other words, maxims are the highly regarded principles upon which chancery court finds its very core roots. Maxims are well-accepted as natural law, as opposed to law created by legislative proclamation or executive fiat.

The following is not a comprehensive list of the well-established maxims of equity have been utilized in each and every chancery proceeding, rather a short and palatable version of the ones seasoned chancery lawyers most often argue. Most apply in every case to some extent or another. They are, in no particular order, as follows;

  1. Chancery courts aid those who are vigilant. Those who rest on their rights and fail to act quickly to protect them are often barred by the doctrine of “laches”, which essentially curtails certain rights if they are sought after unreasonable delay. This concept is distinguishable from statutes of limitation and no specific numeric time period applies. The standard is highly subject to interpretation of what constitutes reasonable delay. Each court can interpret this concept much differently.
  1. One must have “clean hands”, or be relatively faultless in order to seek the intervention of the court. Although perfection is not required, those who have violated court orders and acted with virtual impunity are often shown the door-quickly. The court will not aid those who violate basic principles of fairness.
  1. The opportunity to be heard is not unique to divorce and custody proceedings, however, those fundamental rights elaborated by the 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are given significant preference in terms of being chancery due process of law. Opportunity to be heard is soundly fundamental.
  1. Substance takes precedence over form. Although to a certain extent this shift in procedural dynamics has also been seen in damages/non-equity courts, the transition away from fact pleading and toward notice pleading is even more visible in courts of equity (chancery). Intent is more valuable than form of pleadings.
  1. All wrongs have a remedy, even if no statute prohibits specific conduct. Generally, and going back to 8th grade civics class, the legislature makes laws that are then interpreted by the judiciary. In equity courts, strict adherence to legislative proclamation takes a back seat to redressing all wrongs. A particularly pointed example of this function is when a party has failed to specifically make a claim that is within the general subject matter of the litigation but the opposing party is well-aware of the potential for liability. Often after a pleading is filed but prior to trial, facts and circumstances change. The court is not often inclined to hold you to a rigorous standard when this simple oversight occurs.

In summation, Mississippi chancery courts exercise broad authority in determining all matters that come before them. Chancellors have broad discretion and will exercise them to the benefit of fairness. Strict rules of pleading are not par for the chancery course. Although most litigants are willing to deal with the stress of domestic law, often a simple path remains elusive to those who are charged with excessive emotion. If you have a chancery court matter and need some fair advice from a seasoned litigator, feel free to give us a call.

Matthew Poole is a Jackson, Mississippi domestic lawyer who specializes in domestic conflict management. He is a single father and extremely passionate about the best interests of children.