Bill Long 12/10/04
The Quarrel Between Law and Equity
The conflict between law and equity which had been brewing for several generations broke into open conflict early in the 17th century. There are numerous reasons why it erupted at this time, two of the most prominent being the practice of disregarding the Chancellor's injunctions by the Chief Justice of the King's Bench, Edward Coke (1613-16) and the authoritarian habits of King James I (1603-25), who took Coke's attempt to quash or ignore injunctions as tantamount to his repudiation of royal authority. Indeed, one of the huge subtexts behind the law vs. equity explosion in 1615-16 is the conflict between two authoritarian styles: that of Coke, who honored the common law even above the King and James, who believed in his divine right and the consequent requirement that the common law, as well as equity, judges to do his bidding.
Jurisprudential revolutions, however, are also generated by bad cases or, differently said, by bad decisions of courts. Two cases from the 16th and early 17th centuries show Equity's outrage at Law's "injustice." In the first case, from the late 16th century, Throckmorton v. Finch, the Chancellor was forbidden by King's Bench from hearing the case under the following circumstances. A lease was declared void by KB due to nonpayment of rent. This nonpayment happened decades before the judgment and occurred because Throckmorton's servant was mugged and robbed on the way to paying the rent. Throckmorton paid the rent the next day (one day late, according to law), and it was accepted. Nevertheless, the KB court concluded that the lease was properly terminated because of late payment. When Throckmorton then sought an injunction in Chancery to stay execution of judgment, Finch claimed he need not respond to the bill. The Chancellor Ellesmere (1597-1616) ordered him to answer, but Finch appealed to the Queen, who referred the matter back to all the judges, who decided that the Chancellor could not examine the case after there had been a judgment at law. Equity seethed, but could do nothing.
A second case, from 1614, was decided when Coke was Chief Justice of KB. The defendant, Glanvil, had defrauded plaintiff, Courtney, by selling him a jewel worth 20 pounds for the price of 360 pounds. Glanvil sued at law on the bond he received in payment and was awarded a judgment. The plaintiff, discovering the fraud, brought a writ of error to reverse the judgment, but the judgment was affirmed. He then appealed to Chancery because Chancery had jurisdiction to review issues of fraud, duress and unconscionability. Predictably, the Chancellor ordered defendant to return the money. He refused and was imprisoned by order of the Chancellor. Coke and KB then released the defendant by a writ of habeas corpus, even though he still refused to comply with the Chancellor's injunction. Coke's theory was that the Chancellor's intervention after judgment was improper.
The King's Commission
The case that actually triggered royal action, however, was a 1615-1616 case which concerned a plaintiff's obtaining a judgment against a defendant when he misled the defendant's chief witness so that he could not be present at trial. Plaintiff obtained the judgment and the defendant persuaded the Chancellor to enjoin the plaintiff from enforcing the judgment,* but Coke, in
[*The case is never named in the reporters, and the scholars who present the case and related issues seem to refer to different cases. I am following the treatment of Raack here, but Catherine Drinker Bowen's handling of the issue in her award-winning The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, p. 362, gives the impression that the case which Raack discusses is really the jewel case, Courtney v. Glanvil. I cannot resolve this controversy here, and, indeed it bears little on the larger issue here presented].
his over-the-top response, tried to have everyone involved in the injunction, including Chancellor Ellesmere, indicted for violating the statutes of Premunire. The Statutes of Premunire, which will be discussed in the next essay, were statutes passed in 1353 and 1402 and related to the ability of litigants to appeal verdicts after judgment was entered. In response, the King took the extraordinary step of appointing a commission of four men to deal with the situation thus presented.
The record of the appointment of the Commission and its thirteen recommendations are preserved in the first volume of the Chancery Reports, now bound most conveniently in Vol. 21 of the English Reports.
A Comment on the Commission
Professor Raack's account in his article on the history of the injunction before 1700 seems to confuse some things. He posits the commission being appointed (date not given) and dealing with the separate issues of precedents for injunctions after judgment at law (which was desired by the King) and whether an equity injunction after King's Bench judgment would violate the Statutes of Premunire. Yet, from the extant records it appears that things worked in two stages, as follows:
1) In March 1615, the King, through the Chancellor Ellesmere, wrote a letter asking for clarification on whether there were common law precedents supporting the legitimacy of injunctions after common law judgments. A commission of four (Francis Bacon, Randell Crew, Henry Mountague and Henry Yelverton) were appointed to answer this question. The next essay will discuss their answer.
2) One year later, in March 1616, it appears that the commission, now augmented by one more member, John Walter, was asked the additional question, of whether Chancery was prohibited by the Statutes of Premunire from reviewing and enjoining judgments at law. It reported on this issue in July 1616. It appears that this second question was provoked by Coke's highhanded decision in the case just discussed to try to indict even the Chancellor under the Premunire laws.
Thus, the Commission seemed to be at work for more than a year answering these questions. It was an important work to perform, since at stake was the very power of equity to do its work. The Commission report was a complete victory for King James I, and led to the almost immediate dismissal of Coke from his Chief Justiceship. The next essay will discuss the results of the Commission's work.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R.Long