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The Enforcement of Legal Rights

by a Court of Equity



The rise of equitable principles, their incorporation into a separate and distinct system of jurisprudence alongside of and in many respects in hostility to the common law of England will always be recognized by the student of the law as one of the most instructive as well as interesting steps in the history of our great profession. When we remember the hold which the common law had upon the people, and their sacred regard for it as their protection against the encroachments of power, and the fact that in its foreign garb, ecclesiasticism, so repugnant to Saxon thought, had fastened itself on to the principles of equity, its steady growth, its marvelous expansion, and its final triumph in the Judicature Act of 1873 must be regarded as one of the most signal triumphs in the world's history. If my Lord Coke was willing to suffer imprisonment in the maintenance of the rights of the common law against the encroachment of equitable principles, we may well imagine that he would have welcomed death as but a slight oblation for his devotion to the cause of which he was so valiant a defender, in resisting the “enforcement of legal rights by a Court of Equity.” It was indeed, hard enough for the advocates of the common law to accept without murmuring the rise of equitable principles in contravention of the common law. This was wormwood and gall; was resisted in its progress as a subversion of the law of the realm, and during every step of the struggle was met by the most determined opposition. Nor did it matter that these principles were asserted as a separate system of jurisprudence; the common law lawyers were not blinded to the fact that it was in effect an appeal from the common law courts. If the judgment of a court of law could be forever enjoined, it was in effect the reversal of the judgment by a court of foreign jurisdiction. The march of equity was, however, steady, and the High Court of Chancery, backed by the king and the ecclesiastics, never lost any advantage which had been gained--but like those sustaining powers in mechanics which retain whatever they once have gained, it advanced with a step that never retrograded. Resistance was powerless, judgments were annulled, the power of the chancellor was increasing against protest, and the final outcome of the struggle was assured in the recognition and assertion of equitable principles by a court of equity as a separate and distinct system of jurisprudence. Power once acquired is seldom lest. If a court of equity could uproot the basic foundation of the common law, though protesting with deep humility at every step, that it was merely following the law, the next step was easy.

Could the courts of this new system, brought into being for enforcing only equitable principles, advance a step and enlarge its domain by enforcing legal rights.

Granted that a court of equity could enforce equitable principles, would not this be the limit of its ambition? Would it, while protesting its innocence of invading the functions of the common law courts, take upon itself, without disclaimer, the adjudication of legal rights? How could a court established under a system for the enforcement of the peculiar principles of that system, assume jurisdiction of other principles arising under a different system ? and yet so relentless and irresistible has been the march of equity that the right of a court of equity having once properly taken jurisdiction of a cause for the determination of a question properly belonging to that system of jurisprudence to determine legal rights in order to do complete justice between the parties is now fully recognized, and has been for years. Indeed, it is a principle so elementary and so well recognized that I pause only for a moment to refer to one or two well established cases in our courts. Perhaps one of the best recognized cases in our courts is that of Nagle v. Newton, 22 Gratt., 814, where the court holds that the case being a proper one for the jurisdiction of equity may, in addition to the determination of the equitable principles involved, decree compensation for damages to one of the parties to the contract which was asked to be specifically enforced. The authorities are reviewed by Judge Christian in that case, and the jurisdiction sanctioned in the language of the court as follows: "Why shonld the cause be divided into two suits—a part of the controversy to be adjudicated in a court of equity, and a part in a court of law? Why should two distinct and independent tribunals be invoked to dispose of a cause between the same parties, where their respective claims are so connected as. to be inseparable? Why call upon a court of law to aid the court of equity, which has the undoubted original jurisdiction of the subject matter and of the parties, and is provided with all the machinery necessary to arrive at the same result, and in the same mode, if need be (trial by jury) which could be attained in a court of law? We cannot perceive the necessity or the propriety of such a practice. Nor can we find any authority among the modern decisions to require it.” This case, and many that might be cited as following it, and adopting its principles, establishes the principle that where a court of chancery rightfully has jurisdiction of the cause, it will hold it to do complete justice to all of the parties involved even if thereby the adjudication of legal rights are involved. The soundness of this principle has now passed beyond the realm of controversy. And while, if asserted in the days of in re Shylock, or of Langford v. Bernard, Tothill 134 (1598), would have been resisted with all the prejudice of the common law lawyers of that day, it is perhaps to-day as well recognized as any principle in equity jurisprudence.

The phase of the question to which I desire specially to direct attention is not whether a court of equity having jurisdiction of a cause may enforce legal rights arising in the progress of the cause between the parties, but whether a court of equity, which, as the final decision of the cause shows, never had jurisdiction of the original cause, may yet hold the case for the adjudication of legal rights which it clearly could not have enforced if the bill had been filed for their enforcement. In the first case stated, the adjustment of equitable principles is the foundation of the suit, the enforcement of legal rights which might incidentally arise in the progress of the cause is merely ancillary to the main contention. The enforcement of equitable principles was the primary; that of legal rights an incident of the sulit. The one, original, primary; the other, ancillary and secondary. The one, the cause of the suit; the other, an incident. The che, the foundation; the other, an incident of the superstructure. But the question to which attention is now directed is more troublesome. Admitting that being once properly within the jurisdiction of a court of equity, that that court will retain the cause to do complete justice, does it follow that complete justice may be done the parties in the adjudication of legal rights on the basis of a bill, which, on its face, shows a want of equity-or where in the final determination of the cause it is shown that there was actually no equity for which the jurisdiction of the court could have been properly invoked.

The first branch of this subject may be quickly disposed of. If the bill on its face is demurrable for want of equity, I think it will not be questioned that is a demurrer is interposed, the cause cannot be retained for the determination of any rights, legal or equitable. Without an equity in the bill it can be retained for no purpose. Its only standing in court must be on the equity on its face. If that is lacking, the bill must fail for all purposes. If, however, the bill on its face sets forth facts which clearly give to the court jurisdiction of the cause, and such bill is not open to demurrer because it states a good cause of action, but in the development of the cause, in the filing of the answer, the pleas of the defendant, the production of testimony, it is shown that the cause as set forth in the bill is not made out,

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