Henry Smith, ‘Equity as Meta-Law’

ABSTRACT
With the merger of law and equity almost complete, the idea of equity as a special part of our legal system or a mode of decision-making has fallen out of view. This Article argues that much of equity is best understood as performing a vital function. Equity and related parts of the law solve complex and uncertain problems – including interdependent behavior and misuses of legal rules by opportunists – and do so in a characteristic fashion: as meta-law. From unconscionability to injunctions, equity makes reference to, supplements, and sometimes overrides the result that law would otherwise produce, while primary law operates without reference to equity. Equity operates on a domain of fraud, accident, and mistake, and employs triggers such as bad faith and disproportionate hardship to toggle into a ‘meta’-mode of more open-ended scrutiny. This Article provides a theoretical account of how a hybrid law, consisting of relatively simple and general primary-level law and relatively intense and directed second-order equity can regulate behavior better through these specialized modes than would homogeneous law alone. The Article tests this theory on the ostensibly most unpromising aspects of equity, the traditional equitable maxims, as well as equitable fraud, defenses, and remedies. Equity as meta-law sheds light on how the fusion of law and equity spawned multifactor balancing tests, polarized interpretation, and led to the confusion of equity with standards, discretion, purely public law, and ‘mere’ remedies. Viewing equity as meta-law also improves on the tradeoff between formalism and contextualism and ultimately promotes the rule of law.

Smith, Henry E, Equity as Meta-Law (October 15, 2020). Yale Law Journal, forthcoming.

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