Declaratory Relief is a legal procedure designed for those seeking “preventive justice.” Specifically, its purpose is to “set controversies at rest before they lead to repudiation of obligations, invasions of rights or commissions of wrongs.” It is a vehicle to allow a presumptive defendant or respondent take adjudicative action to define their rights, responsibilities, and obligiations vis-a-vis third party actors. This helps relieve the uncertainty or insecurity that they may be experiencing due to communications or conduct received from that third party. It operates prospectively rather than to redress merely past wrongs.
The controversy must be real, involving justiciable questions that relate to the parties’ rights and obligations. For example, a party may bring an action for declaratory relief before an actual breach or invasion of rights has occurred. However, the action must be based on an actual controversy with known parameters. It is not available to determine hypothetical or abstract questions. If the parameters are as yet unknown, the controversy is not ripe for declaratory relief. A difference of opinion does not constitute an actual controversy. A difference of opinion must ripen into an actual concrete controversy to give rise to a justiciable case for which declaratory relief is appropriate. Furthermore, the controversy must be such as to be capable of resolution by a judgment that decrees, rather than suggests, what the parties can or cannot do.
Advantages of seeking declaratory relief include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Code of Civil Procedure (CCP), § 1062.3 provides for trial-setting preference over all other civil actions with certain exceptions;
- The parties can resolve disputes before actual damage occurs or irreversible damage is caused by the repudiation of an agreement;
- Such actions allow a party to seek the resolution of a contract dispute before being forced to act on an interpretation that would create a breach of that contract;
- Competing interests of several parties over property can be resolved in one action;
- The application, interpretation, validity, or constitutionality of a statute, ordinance or regulation may be clarified or resolved;
- There is no statute of limitations specifically applicable to declaratory relief actions;
- Certain disputes that would normally be determined in successive actions may be determined in one action, e.g., questions of indemnification; and
- Under CCP, § 1062, a declaratory judgment under the California Declaratory Judgment Act does not preclude a party from obtaining other appropriate relief.