Legal Dictionary

unclean hands

Definition of unclean hands


unclean hands (uncountable)

  1. (law) A doctrine of equity under which a court of law will not provide equitable relief to a party whose own conduct has been improper.

Further reading

Unclean hands, sometimes clean hands doctrine or dirty hands doctrine[1] is an equitable defense in which the defendant argues that the plaintiff is not entitled to obtain an equitable remedy on account of the fact that the plaintiff is acting unethically or has acted in bad faith with respect to the subject of the complaint-that is, with "unclean hands".[2] The defendant has the burden of proof to show the plaintiff is not acting in good faith. The doctrine is often stated as "those seeking equity must do equity" or "equity must come with clean hands".

A defendant's unclean hands can also be claimed and proven by the plaintiff to claim other equitable remedies and to prevent that defendant from asserting equitable affirmative defenses. In other words, 'unclean hands' can be used offensively by the plaintiff as well as defensively by the defendant. Historically, the doctrine of unclean hands can be traced as far back as the Fourth Lateran Council.


The unclean hands doctrine is being cited by artist Shepard Fairey in the case of the Associated Press's copyright claim on Fairey's Barack Obama "Hope" poster. The Associated Press has claimed that Fairey infringed upon the AP's copyright in publishing the poster, because the poster is based upon an AP photograph that Fairey had not received permission to use. Fairey contends that the AP has "unclean hands" in this matter, because the AP has frequently published and profited from photographs based upon the work of Fairey and other artists without receiving permission from the artists.[3]


  1. "dirty hands doctrine definition". Retrieved 2009-06-19.
  2. "Unclean Hands definition". Retrieved 2009-06-19.
  3. "Shepard Fairey, In Latest Legal Defense, Argues AP Copied His Poster". 2009-04-15. Retrieved 2009-06-19.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


1.     warrant
2.     tampering
3.     emtio
4.     amnesty law
5.     magistrates court
6.     lex fori
7.     landed property
8.     lex situs
9.     lex causae
10.     ownership