See F. W. Maitland, Equity (1909, repr. 1969); R. A. Newman, Equity in Law (1961); H. G. Hanbury, Modern Equity (9th ed., ed. by R. H. Maudsley, 1969); G. H. Webb and T. C. Bianco, Equity (1970).
Justice according to fairness, especially as distinguished from mechanical application of rules under common law. Courts of equity (also called chancery courts) arose in England in the 14th century in response to the increasingly strict rules of proof and other requirements of the courts of law. Equity provided remedies not available under the old writ system. Often these remedies involved something other than damages, such as specific performance of contractual obligations, enforcement of a trust, restitution of goods wrongfully acquired, imposition of an injunction, or the correction and cancellation of false or misleading documents. The equity courts eventually established their own precedents, rules, and doctrines and began to rival the law courts in power. The two systems were united in 1873. Courts of equity also developed early in U.S. history, but by the early 20th century most jurisdictions had combined them with courts of law into a single system. Modern courts apply both legal and equitable principles and offer both legal and equitable relief.
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In most contexts, an essential element of laches is the requirement that the party invoking the doctrine has changed its position as a result of the delay. In other words, the defendant is in a worse position now than at the time the claim should have been brought. For example, the delay in asserting the claim may have caused a great increase in the potential damages to be awarded; or assets that could earlier have been used to satisfy the claim may have been distributed in the meantime; or the property in question may already have been sold; or evidence or testimony may no longer be available to defend against the claim.
A defense lawyer raising the defense of laches against a motion for injunctive relief (a form of equitable relief) might argue that the plaintiff comes "waltzing in at the eleventh hour" when it is now too late to grant the relief sought, at least not without causing great harm that the plaintiff could have avoided. In certain types of cases (for example, cases involving time-sensitive matters, such as elections), a delay of even a few days is likely to be met with a defense of laches, even where the applicable statute of limitations might allow the type of action to be commenced within a much longer time period.
A successful defense of laches will find the court denying the request for equitable relief. However, even if equitable relief is not available, the party may still have an action at law if the statute of limitations has not run out.
The defense of laches resembles, but is not entirely analogous to, a plea that the period of time allowed under a statute of limitations has expired. Laches essentially alleges prejudicial delay and unfairness in the context of a particular situation, whereas statutes of limitation tend to define a specific legally prescribed period of time (after the cause of action has accrued) within which a lawsuit for a particular type of cause of action may be commenced or after which the right to recovery is barred. Moreover, although a lawsuit commenced within the time allowed by a limitations period is valid no matter how long it takes for the action to proceed to trial, laches can sometimes be applied even in a situation where a lawsuit has been commenced and any delays would otherwise be reasonable. It is generally allowed by a court when a defendant could reasonably have believed that the plaintiff was not going to exercise his or her legal rights and acted on that belief to his or her detriment.