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Unusually harsh and shocking to the conscience; that which is so grossly unfair that a court will proscribe it.
When a court uses the word unconscionable to describe conduct, it means that the conduct does not conform to the dictates of conscience. In addition, when something is judged unconscionable, a court will refuse to allow the perpetrator of the conduct to benefit.
In contract law an unconscionable contract is one that is unjust or extremely one-sided in favor of the person who has the superior bargaining power. An unconscionable contract is one that no person who is mentally competent would enter into and that no fair and honest person would accept. Courts find that unconscionable contracts usually result from the exploitation of consumers who are often poorly educated, impoverished, and unable to find the best price available in the competitive marketplace.
Contractual provisions that indicate gross one-sidedness in favor of the seller include provisions that limit damages against the seller, limit the rights of the purchaser to seek court relief against the seller, or disclaim a warranty. State and federal Consumer Protection and Consumer Credit laws were enacted to prevent many of these unconscionable contract provisions from being included in sales contracts.
Unconscionability is determined by examining the circumstances of the parties when the contract was made; these circumstances include, for example, the bargaining power, age, and mental capacity of the parties. The doctrine is applied only where it would be an affront to the integrity of the judicial system to enforce such contracts.
Unconscionable conduct is also found in acts of fraud and deceit, where the deliberate misrepresentation of fact deprives someone of a valuable possession. Whenever someone takes unconscionable advantage of another person, the action may be treated as criminal fraud or the civil action of deceit.
No standardized criteria exist for measuring whether an action is unconscionable. A court of law applies its conscience, or moral sense, to the facts before it and makes a subjective judgment. The U.S. Supreme Court's "shock the conscience test" in rochin v. california 342 U.S. 165, 72 S. Ct. 205, 96 L. Ed. 183 (1952), demonstrates this approach. The Court ruled that pumping the stomach of a criminal suspect in search of drugs offends "those canons of decency and fairness which express the notions of justice of English-speaking peoples." The Court relied on these general historical and moral traditions as the basis for ruling unconstitutional an unconscionable act.