The dictionary defines the word equitable as having the character of fairness or equity, or of being fair, reasonable, or just and right. As it applies to the law, equitable means much the same thing, though it is elevated to a principal by which judges decide how to settle disputes. The legal system of equity comes from the English common law tradition, in which the courts settle disputes by applying principles of fairness.

While a court of law generally applies the law to award a party monetary damages to make them whole, a court of equity makes orders for one party to perform a specific act, or to refrain from acting, in order to ensure there is a fair resolution. To explore this concept, consider the following equitable definition.

Definition of Equitable


  1. Pertaining to the system of equity, as distinguished from common law.
  2. Having a character of fairness or impartiality, without bias.


1640-1650        Middle English equit(y) + -able

Equitable Relief in the U.S. Legal System

The modern U.S. legal system combines the principles of equity and law, allowing every court to provide equitable and legal relief in any case. Essentially this means that individuals asking the court to award them monetary damages for their legal claim can use the same court as individuals asking the court to order, stop, or deny a specific act or event. Because civil lawsuits are often complex issues, it is not uncommon for a court to order both legal and equitable relief in a single case.

Equitable Claim

An individual or entity who is asking the court to grant an injunction for something is essentially asking the judge to compel or force another party to either do or stop doing something. The courts often grant injunctions in order to prevent some harm from being done while the parties litigate a dispute. In this way, the court prevents future harm, rather than trying to compensate someone for harm or loss after the fact, and this is how it differs from a legal claim.

For example:

A developer has talked the city council into re-zoning a 10-acre parcel of land to allow it to demolish the old buildings, and build a new shopping center. The families living around the area don’t want the “historical” buildings to be torn down, and petition the court for an injunction blocking this action, either temporarily until the court can make a decision on the matter, or permanently. By granting an injunction, the court prevents the act, which would destroy historic buildings, before the damage could be done. This is an equitable remedy.

Legal Claim

Most civil lawsuits filed in the U.S. every day are legal claims, in which individuals claim that the actions of another person or entity have caused them some type of loss. Loss, as it applies to a legal claim or civil lawsuit, might include anything from bodily injuries sustained in an accident, to property damage resulting from negligence of a contractor, to financial losses incurred because of fraud.

In any legal claim, the plaintiff must prove to the judge that he suffered some type of loss, and that it was the defendant’s actions, failure to act, or fraud that caused his loss. If he is successful, the judge may order the defendant to pay money to the plaintiff to remedy his losses. This monetary award is referred to as “damages.”

For example:

Rick makes a right-hand turn into a driveway, not having seen Julie riding her bicycle in the bike lane beside him. He strikes Julie, demolishing her expensive cycle, and causing her serious injuries, including a broken leg and several lacerations. Julie brings a legal claim by filing a civil lawsuit in which she requests reimbursement for her medical bills, reimbursement for her totaled bicycle, and money for pain and suffering. Julie also asks the judge to award her money for loss of earnings during the time of her convalescence. Because the court is making a monetary award to compensate Julie for losses, rather than issuing an order to prevent losses from occurring, this is a legal remedy.

Equitable Distribution

The legal term equitable distribution refers to the fair division and distribution of marital property and debt during a divorce. When a couple divorces, they have to decide how to divide up all the things that they own, such as the family home, their cars, household furnishings, and other items, as well as dividing up their debt. Instead of arbitrarily dividing everything 50/50, most states use a system of equitable distribution, considering the financial condition of each party, employability, and other factors in deciding how to distribute the property, financial assets, and debts. In addition, in using equitable distribution, spousal support is no longer the sole purview of the wife, but may be awarded to either spouse in order to make a fair judgment.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Fraud – A false representation of fact, whether by words, conduct, or concealment, intended to deceive another.
  • Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.
  • Monetary Damages – Money ordered by the court to be paid to an individual or entity as compensation for injury or loss caused by the wrongful conduct of another party.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.