October 28, 2021

Doctrine of Clean Hands: An underrated doctrine

On 28th day of May 2021, the Kerala High court passed an order in which the decision was solely influenced by the doctrine of clean hands.  In the world’s largest democratic country like India, the judiciary plays an important role in dispensing justice. It is endowed with an additional duty of maintaining social order by keeping an eye on the legislations passed disputes raised by the citizens and others.

The Indian judicial system dates back to 1726 and since then, it has played a major role in settling disputes between the people. Presently, the Indian judicial system has almost 4.4 crores of pending cases as of April 2021.[1] These cases ought to be decided on the principle of “Satyameva Jayate” and the court have been following the same. But in the country like India, where the facts, evidence are capable of manipulation, dispensing of justice takes a wrong turn and there have been many instances of the same.

Considering this aspect, the Supreme Court of India have formulated the doctrine of clean hands and have placed it as an essential while approaching court. This doctrine or behavior of a person is seen at utmost importance by court. An empirical research of a small sample of 40 students, showed that almost 42% of them are not aware about the doctrine.[2] This being taken into consideration, the paper aims at bringing awareness about the aforesaid doctrine. Further reading of this paper will help in bringing forward the concept of clean hands and analyzing the scope, background or history in other words, some of the important or landmark cases by the honorable Supreme Court of India.

Meaning and Evolution

The doctrine of clean hands has been considered to be placed under the Maxim of Equity. This doctrine means the one who enters the court with a lawsuit, petition, or granting relief should be free from unfair conduct by correctly disclosing all the facts that can defer the judgment of the raised issue. The Doctrine is often alternatively read as “those seeking Equity must do Equity” or “Equity must come with clean hands[3]. In case an appellant or applicant is found guilty of concealment of facts or even attempting to mislead the justice, the court of justice has the right to deny the lawsuit on just the grounds of this doctrine without going through the merits of the case.

The three fundamental rationales which form the basics of The Doctrine of Clean Hands are judicial integrity, justice, public interest. Firstly, the doctrine protects judicial integrity by fully respecting the core values of independence, impartiality, personal integrity, equality, and diligence.[4] Allowing an unclean plaintiff to recover would not abet the plaintiff’s inequitable conduct but would also question the justice provided by the judiciary.[5] Therefore, the court must refuse to provide relief by allowing the court to remain above inequity.

Secondly, the Doctrine promotes justice, the court uses this doctrine to ensure a fair outcome. If the plaintiff’s conduct is unclean, it would be unjust to allow the plaintiff a remedy, courts can use the doctrine as a bar to remedy.[6] Therefore, the doctrine prevents the unclean plaintiff.

Thirdly, the Clean Hands Doctrine promotes the public interest. Courts can use the doctrine where a suit involves a public right or issue. In cases involving the public interest, the “doctrine assumes wider and more significant proportions. Thus, in cases involving the public interest, a court may not only prevent a wrongdoer from benefitting from his /her transgressions but avoid injury to the public[7].

The doctrine of clean hands applicable to the advocates as well. Advocates should make sure to do all the possible research related to their client’s case. Both the advocates and the plaintiff should not try to mislead the court and state all the facts related to the case appropriately. Advocates should educate and train their clients to speak the truth and not hide any major facts related to the case.

Evolution:

The root of a tradition or a moral cannot be specifically identified. But the root of this doctrine dates back to pre-independence period and even earlier. This is the view of honourable former justice G.S. Singhvi and honourable former justice A.K. Singhvi. One of their judgement quotes the following words:

“From many centuries, Indian society has always cherished the basic values of life that is ‘Satya’(Truth) and ‘Ahimsa’(Non-violence). Mahavir, Gautam buddha and Mahatma Gandhi guided the people to ingrain these values in their daily life. Truth has always played integral part of justice delivery system which was in vogue in pre-independence era and the people used to feel proud to tell truth in the courts irrespective of the consequences. However, post-independence period has seen drastic changes in our value system and judiciary system. The materialism has over-shadowed the old ethics and the quest for personal gain has become so intense that those involved in litigation neither step back nor hesitate to take shelter of falsehood, misrepresentation and suppression of facts in the court proceedings.”[8]

Any origin of concept of law can be credited to English or Roman laws as they are considered to be the roots. The laws in India also were formed with the common law of England as the base. This doctrine of clean hands has originated in the English courts of chancery as a limit to a party’s right to equitable relief, where the party had acted inequitably in respect of the matter.[9] The most renowned ‘Halsbury’s Laws of England’ has explained this doctrine beautifully and it explains that the original maxim in this respect is “he that hath committed an inequity, shall not have equity. [10]

Doctrine of Clean Hands- No more a Res Integra

The Indian Legal Framework does not have the mention of the doctrine as the law makers considered that morality and ethical conduct of people will not let them approach court with unclean hands. As years passed, the country saw a creed of new litigants who have ignored the morality, neglected the ethical conduct and disrespected the way of truth.[11] This drastic and unfortunate change in the Indian Value system has led the judiciary to intervene and signify the importance of clean hands. The result of this was the evolution of the legal maxim “He who comes into equity must come with clean hands”. The Apex court in various of its judgments has highlighted the importance of an applicant/plaintiff/appellant approaching the court without suppressing any material facts required in course of delivering justice.

  1. Hari Narain v. Badri Das

The year 1963 saw a case decided by the honorable Supreme Court of India (Apex Court), that can be regarded as first of the many to be decided under the doctrine of clean hands. In the case of Hari Narain v. Badri Das,[12] the division bench of the apex court comprising 3 judges i.e., honorable justices (JJ) P.B. Gajendragadkar, M. Hidayatullah and J.C. Shah, played a significant role in establishing the doctrine of clean hands, now a well settled law. In the above-mentioned case, the bench didn’t even examine the merits of the case as the appellant was seen suppressing material facts that led the learned single judge of the Rajasthan High Court to grant leave to the appellants. The importance to the aforesaid doctrine was first stressed upon in this case.

  • Dalip Singh v. State of U.P          

 Another important and one of the most cited, used landmark case is Dalip Singh v. State of U.P.[13] This case can be placed in forefront which created a speculation in the legal field. The division bench of the Supreme court comprising honorable justices (JJ) G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly, delivered a verdict that just glorified the importance of this doctrine. This judgment in the case of appeal under articles 136, 226 and 32 sent out a very strong message to the society. The appellant had filed an appeal in the seeking the relief over orders passed by the authorities of state of Uttar Pradesh. The court did not even care to examine the merits of the case and instead slammed the appellant over the act of misleading the authority and the court.

The apex court just declared that the necessity of deciding on merit does not arise when the applicant/appellant has not approached the court with clean hands. The court called the type of litigators who manipulate the truth or approach the court with unclean hands, as shameless litigators. It was criticized that “people who try to pollute the stream of justice or touch the stream of justice with tainted hands are not entitled to any relief, interim or final”.[14]

The reasons for this case to be considered a significant was the interpretation of the Indian History connecting with the doctrine of clean hands and the court did not consider the relief even though it was the matter of fundamental right. This verdict brought out an awareness to the public and legal field, of where the courts have placed the doctrine of clean hands.     

  • Pottalakalathil Ramakrishanan v. Thasildar and Ors

As stated in the beginning, the honorable High court of Kerala, delivered a verdict which was completely influenced by the doctrine of clean hands. The judgement dated 28th May of 2021 in the case of Pottalakalathil Ramakrishnan v. Thasildar and Ors,[15] revived the doctrine of clean hands which was buried under the sand in the recent times. The appellant had challenged the learned single judge’s order of allowing the review petition in the same high court and sought for declaring it invalid. But the court observed that the appellant’s misconduct, reserved facts and manipulated truth drove the justice towards them. The honorable division bench concurred with the decision of the learned single judge in allowing the review petition and slammed the appellant. The verdict said that “honesty, fairness, purity of mind and approaching the writ court must be of the highest order and if litigant fails in this objective, then he is not entitled for any relief but the exit doors”.[16]

This judgment also stresses upon the doctrine of clean hands as it places the ethical and moral qualities in highest order. Many apex court verdicts do the same i.e., place the values above law. Not only Apex court but various international courts have also placed the doctrine of clean hands in a superior level and highest order.

Conclusion

There is a very long disputed, debated, deliberated topic of whether law and morality must co-exist or not. Well, the answer would be indeed yes because the morality created humanity and the humanity created the law. A society where the morals would vanish into thin air, will render the laws in vain as the humanity that forgets morality will never be one. The stream of justice as referred into in the Dalip Singh case, is very pure which helps in maintaining order and prevail over the darkness of injustice. But when the same stream is touched upon by a person with tainted hands and does not allow it to flow to where it deserved to, the whole reason for birth of the pure river can be seen deviated and destroyed.

The undisputable fact of lawyer working with his utmost skill to help his client is the professional obligation created, is true. There is nothing contradictory to deny the fact, but the point of interest of client might not be same as the justice. For client, nothing in court of law is important except winning the case and hence will be of course ready to do whatever it takes. But, in the ends and interests of justice, this might be unacceptable. The manipulation of truth, presentation of reserved facts and many other circumstances that amount to approaching the court with unclean hands, will drive the court to deliver a verdict against justice. The intended justice must be deserved justice and not a contrast. With this being said, a lawyer hence plays an important role in making his client aware of the doctrine, encouraging him to not cross the boundaries prescribed by justice and to ensure the justice intended deserves is in concurrence with justice intended.

This type of justice is no less than injustice itself and as said by Martin Luther king Jr, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”.[17] When a person approached with unclean hands and yet receives the relief he was not entitled to, derogates the trust of people that they hold towards the court. Although the doctrine of clean hands is old, yet there are cases where this is not followed. Hence there is a need for spreading awareness among the people as this basic value is not the one that has to be enforced by codified law but must be followed by the people on their own.


[1] Pradeep Thankur, Pending cases in India cross 4.4 crore, up 19% since last year, Times of India, Apr. 15,2021 (Last visited: Jun. 3,2021) https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/pending-cases-in-india-cross-4-4-crore-up-19-since-last-year/articleshow/82088407.cms.

[2] The empirical survey result conducted through google forms, https://drive.google.com/file/d/13uwWZgpwLmi-WzF8k9VZfRKP6_RoH5we/view?usp=sharing.

[3]Inder Chand Jain, Supression of material facts and doctrine of clean hands, Legalservice india (Last visited: Jun. 4,2021) http://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-5232-suppression-of-material-facts-and-doctrine-of-clean-hands.html.  

[4]Judicial Integrity, Office on drugs and crime, United nations (Last visited Jun. 5,2021) https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/corruption/judicial-integrity.html.  

[5] W.J. Lawence, Applciation of clean hands doctrine in damage actions 673,65 (Volume 57 of Nortre Dam Law Review, 1982).  

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dalip Singh v. State of U.P., (2010) 2 SCC 114.

[9] Norm Emblem & Bethany McKoy, Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up: Doctrine of clean hands, International Law Office, Dec. 6, 2016 (Last visited Jun. 8,2021) https://drive.google.com/file/d/1LeDw5LQVEYtBmV9VRxvAL_1EtnYVUIkC/view?usp=sharing. 

[10] D.N. Clarke, Halsbury Laws of England (4th edition, volume 16, 2006).

[11] Supra note 8.

[12] Hari Narain v. Badri Das, AIR 1963 SC 1558: (1964) 2 SCR 1558.

[13] Dalip Singh v. State of U.P, (2010) 2 SCC 114.

[14] Inder Chand Jain, Supression of material facts and doctrine of clean hands, Legalservice india (Last visited: Jun. 4,2021) http://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-5232-suppression-of-material-facts-and-doctrine-of-clean-hands.html.

[15] Unreported Judgment, WA 1513/2020, decided on May. 28,2021 (SC).

[16] Ibid, at page 29.

[17] Emily’s quotes, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, Pintrest, (Last visited: Jun. 8,2021) https://www.pinterest.com/pin/74661306298516808/.

Authors- Nithya Sampath K (BMS college of Law, Bangalore) & Karthik Surya MR (Christ (Deemed to be) University, Bangalore)

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