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To Get Fairness You Must Act Fairly: Clean Hands Required to Seek Equitable Remedy in Estates Litigation

3 minute read

In De Angelis v Siermy,[1] the British Columbia Court of Appeal (“BCCA”) recently considered the impact of the “cleans hand doctrine” on a claim for unjust enrichment in estate litigation.

The “clean hands doctrine” provides that a party who seeks an equitable remedy from the court must come to Court with clean hands, failing which the Court can refuse to grant the requested equitable remedy. If a party engaged in misconduct and relies upon that misconduct to make out their claim, they will be barred.  At law, equity with its remedies are based on broad principles of fairness and justice.   Unjust enrichment is one possible equitable remedy that can be claimed.

In De Angelis v. Siermy, in addition to claiming that Siermy promised and contracted to leave De Angelis the bulk of her $30 million estate, De Angelis sought damages for unjust enrichment.

The judge at first instance denied De Angelis’ claim for unjust enrichment because the judge determined that De Angelis had forged documents upon which she relied to support her claim for a contractual right to the bulk of Siermy’s estate, and therefore did not come to Court with clean hands.  The Court refused to grant De Angelis any equitable remedy due to the absence of clean hands.

On appeal, the appellate Court held that in order for the clean hands doctrine to apply, there must be some relation between the misconduct and the equitable claim. Additionally, the misconduct must be necessary to establish that equitable claim. For an unjust enrichment claim, the claimant must show an enrichment with a corresponding deprivation for no juristic reason.  In other words, someone benefited from the claimant and there is no good reason that the person who benefited should be permitted to keep that benefit.

The British Columbia Court of Appeal concluded that although De Angelis’ misconduct (the forging of the documents) disallowed her claim for breach of contract (as it was based on the forged documents), the misconduct was not in relation to, or necessary for, her claim for unjust enrichment.  To prove unjust enrichment, De Angelis did not need to rely on the forged documents.  Therefore, the British Columbia Court of Appeal held that De Angelis was not barred from claiming unjust enrichment. Ultimately, her claim still failed as the Court held that she had not established the required elements of unjust enrichment.

It is important in estates litigation to be prepared to pursue and defend against not just contract, but also equitable claims.  This case is useful to confirm that the general legal principles for these types of claims continue to apply to estates litigation.

[1] De Angelis v. Siermy, 2022 BCCA 401

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