The clean hands doctrine is a rule of law that someone bringing a lawsuit or motion and asking the court for equitable relief must be innocent of wrongdoing or unfair conduct relating to the subject matter of his/her claim. It is an affirmative defense that the defendant may claim the plaintiff has "unclean hands". However, this defense may not be used to put in issue conduct of the plaintiff unrelated to plaintiff's claim. Therefore, plaintiff's unrelated corrupt actions and general immoral character would be irrelevant. The defendant must show that plaintiff misled the defendant or has done something wrong regarding the matter under consideration. The wrongful conduct may be of a legal or moral nature, as long as it relates to the matter in issue.
For example, if a seller sues a customer for payments on a contract, defendant may claim plaintiff has unclean hands because he fraudulently induced him to sign the contract. A court of equity will not decide issues of fairness and justice if it is shown that the person asking for such justice has acted wrongly in regard to the issue at hand. In another example, when a brokerage firm claimed that its confidential client information was being pilfered by the competition, the court held that the firm did not come to court with “clean hands” since the court found that firm demonstrated a similar lack of regard for the competitor's confidential client information when it snared the same broker six years earlier.
The doctrine has often been applied in the context of family law issues, specifically in cases of financial misconduct. Fraudulent conduct has been a factor in awarding support and division of property, among other issues.