Vail Law column: What is ‘declaratory relief’ when it comes to the law?
August 22, 2017
If you're of a certain age, or from a certain geographic sector of the country, then no doubt you've heard that particular idiom uttered to mean, "What a surprise!"
"John and Megan eloped last night."
"Well, I declare!"
Or something like that, anyway.
But, in a legal judgment, it's different. Allow me to explain.
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First, it's key to understand exactly what a "declaration" is.
At law, a "declaration" can mean many things. It can refer to the first volley of the pleadings wherein the plaintiff formally lays out the facts and circumstances constituting his claims. In evidence, it can mean an unsworn statement or narration of some or all of the facts giving rise to a claim. Or a declaration can pertain to a similar statement made by a person, now deceased, which is admissible in evidence in some cases, as a "dying declaration."
But it is in the practice of law — rather than the theory — that a "declaration," for our purposes here, interests us.
The "declaratory" part of a judgment, decree or order is that part which lays out the decision or opinion of the court on the question of law in the case. It is the red meat on the bones of what the court decides in a particular matter. For example, in an action raising a question as to the construction of a will, the judgment or order "declares" the true construction of the will.
What, then, about "declaratory relief?" And, while we're at it — other than a plop, plop, fizz, fizz — what the heck is "relief" at law anyway?
There are two kinds of relief. The first, most common-sensical one is of the "Whew! It's finally over!" variety. The more formal is of the "what it is you're asking for" type. When one brings legal action, he or she wants something. Otherwise, why bother? Typically, one asks for money damages. "So-and-So breached his contract with me and I was damaged!" What you want is to be made whole. And what the court awards is your "relief."
"Relief" is the assistance, redress or benefit which one who brings a legal action seeks at the hands of a court and which, at least from the plaintiff's prospective, what one hopes the court will dole out in answer to one bringing suit.
The basics out of the way, let's employ the erector set of law to now construct this. But we need one other little girder first.
Rights of the Parties
Sometimes when things get in a legal bunch, you don't want money damages. An example might be where you want the court to order someone to do, not do or stop doing something. Such relief is referred to as "injunctive" relief. What you're asking the court to do in such a case is to issue an injunctive order, either restraining a person from engaging in certain conduct or, instead, ordering him to perform in a certain manner.
Say, for example, a controversy has arisen from a vendor selling alleged knock-offs of a certain brand. What the aggrieved party might ask the court to do is to enjoin the vendor from selling the fake Nikes. The flipside of this situation may be where the aggrieved party might ask the court to order the person to take an affirmative act in preserving or protecting a certain stock of goods.
In simple terms, "declaratory relief" declares the rights of the parties. Say, for example, there is a dispute over the permitted improvements that can be made to a condominium under the declaration and other governance instruments of the condominium association. The condo owner reads the instruments one way, and the owners' association reads it another. What either party might do is take the matter to the court and say, "Hey, you decide. Which one of us is right in our interpretation?"
Obviously, the condo owner will promote the matter one way and the owners' association will promote it another. What is at stake here is not directly money, but rather a green light, red light or yellow light as to if and how the owner may proceed with his her proposed renovations. Both sides will argue that the facts and law support the respective positions they have taken, and both will plead to the court to see things their way.
The court will weigh the facts and weigh the law, balance all key factors and toss both up on the scales of justice. Ultimately, the court will render its decision and, when it does, will make its declaration. And the relief granted will be the court's declaration or ruling. The court will declare which way the imbroglio will be resolved.
One must bear in mind that one of the main civilizing functions of the court is to resolve disputes peaceably. And it isn't always about money. Instead, sometimes, it's about rights that may lie in dispute. In such circumstance, declaratory relief comes to the rescue. And then peace will be restored in the kingdom. Well, conceptually, anyway.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody and divorce and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.