Unclean Hands: Meaning and Definition

An equitable defense that prevents compensation for a party who has acted unfairly in relation to the basis of that party's claim (such as through fraud, deceit, unconscionability, or bad faith). The "clean hands doctrine" and "dirty hands doctrine" are other names for the "unclean hands doctrine."

Although some countries allow it as a defense to legal claims as well, the "unclean hands" concept is normally only applicable to equitable claims, such as requests for injunctive relief or specific performance. The unclean hand’s doctrine can be used by a plaintiff to counter an equitable defense like estoppel, even though it is normally an affirmative defense raised by a defendant.

Meaning of Unclean Hands

The "unclean hands" doctrine, also known as the "dirty hands" or "clean hands" doctrine, states that if a claimant's cause of action is based on an illegal act, the court will not intervene. It was created in the Anglo-American legal tradition after borrowing from the English courts of equity. It is present in the majority if not all, legal traditions as of right now.

This doctrine's standing as a concept of international law is still up for question, and there is no agreed-upon definition of it in the field of international law. This is a result of the various contexts in which this theory has been applied in actual practice, the several names given to the underlying idea, the lack of agreement regarding the origin of the obligation, and the various repercussions of having "unclean hands."

Example of Unclean Hands

These are a few instances that could support this defense −

  • Failure to comply with the contract

  • Committing fraud or fabricating information about the contract itself

  • Engaging in an offence or tort related to the deal, such as bribery

  • Force or coercion is used to get someone to sign the agreement.

  • Accepting a contract or receiving an offer that involves violence, such as inflicting bodily harm on a person to coerce them into signing the document.

Elements of Unclean Hands

Your attorney must demonstrate that the other party's actions have hurt you in order to establish an "unclean hands" defense. If this is the best course of action for your situation, they will talk about a number of unclean hands issues.

Elements of an unclean hand that will be taken into account in a lawsuit include −

  • Has the contested party broken the terms of the agreement?

  • Has the questioned party committed any fraud?

  • Has the disputed party been deceived about the terms of the contract?

  • Have you been persuaded or otherwise compelled into a contract by the party in question?

You might be able to assert the "unclean hands" defense if the defendant has participated in any of these actions.

How to Prove Unclean Hands

Depending on the state where the contractual dispute is being heard, different criteria may be required to establish dirty hands. It is typically not necessary for the plaintiff to commit the same wrongful act as the defendant. Even though the plaintiff's action differs from the defendant's illegal conduct, it may be determined that they have unclean hands if the defendant raises the unclean hand defense.

As an illustration, the plaintiff can accuse the defendant of breach of contract. However, the defendant may assert the "unclean hands" defense, among other possible defenses, if the plaintiff acted in bad faith while initially negotiating the contract.

The "unclean hands" defense typically has little to do with the moral integrity of the opposing party as well. Instead, it is a specific behaviour. The affirmative defense cannot be supported if the defendant is just insinuating that a plaintiff is a horrible person. Furthermore, this defense is inapplicable if the plaintiff engages in illegal activity unrelated to the contract itself. The "unclean hands" defense is only effective if the plaintiff committed malpractice in connection with the contract. In general, whether the idea of unclean hands is applicable is decided using equitable criteria like good faith and conscience.

Case Laws

Hari Narain V. Badri Das

The Supreme Court of India (Apex Court) rendered a decision in a case in 1963 that can be considered to be the first of many decisions made on the doctrine of clean hands. The division bench of the Supreme Court, which was composed of three judges—honorable justices (JJ) P.B. Gajendragadkar, M. Hidayatullah, and J.C. Shah—in the case of Hari Narain v. Badri Das played a crucial part in creating the notion of clean hands, which is today a well-established legal principle.

In the aforementioned instance, the bench didn't even consider the case's merits because the appellant was caught hiding crucial information that the learned single judge of the Rajasthan High Court had used to approve the appellants' request for leave to proceed. In this case, the significance of the aforementioned doctrine was first emphasised.

Dalip Singh V. State Of U.P

Dalip Singh v. State of U.P. is a significant landmark case that is frequently quoted and used. This case can be highlighted as it generated legal speculation. The Supreme Court's division bench, which was made up of JJs G.S. Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly, rendered a decision that only served to highlight the significance of this theory. This ruling in the appeal under articles 136, 226, and 32 conveyed a very clear message to society.

In an effort to challenge decisions made by the state of Uttar Pradesh's officials, the appellant filed an appeal. The appellant was severely criticized by the court for deceiving the authority and the court, and the court did not even care to consider the case's merits.

The Supreme Court has ruled that when an applicant or appellant does not come before the court with clean hands, it is not necessary to make a merits-based decision. The court referred to the kind of litigators who fabricate evidence or enter the courtroom with dirty hands as "shameless litigators." The statement "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," was criticised.

The court did not examine the remedy even though it was an issue of a fundamental right, which is why this case was thought to be crucial in terms of how Indian history was interpreted in relation to the notion of clean hands. This decision made the general public and the legal community more aware of how the courts have applied the notion of "clean hands."


Whether law and morality must coexist or not has been a hotly contested, discussed, and analysed issue for a very long time. The answer is undoubtedly affirmative because morality and humanity are mutually exclusive concepts. The rules will be useless in a society whose morals disappear into thin air because there will never be a moral humanity. The Dalip Singh case refers to a very pure stream of justice that aids in sustaining order and triumphing over the darkness of injustice.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1. What is the doctrine of waiver?

Ans. The doctrine of right waiver is founded on the idea that an individual is his own best judge and has the freedom to forego exercising rights that the state has granted him. However, the individual must be aware of his rights and understand that any waivers must be freely given.

Q2. What is the objective of the waiver?

Ans. Written agreements called waivers state that the organisation funding an activity won't be responsible for any injuries sustained by participants. Waivers are generally used for legal purposes, but they can have an educational effect by prompting people to consider the possible hazards associated with an activity.

Q3. What is unclean hands V. inequitable rights?

Ans. The "unclean hands" theory has to do with the remedies that are available (or not) to the patent owner, whereas "inequitable conduct" has to do with the legality of a patent.

Updated on: 11-May-2023


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