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For English law on the criminal defences, see duress in English law. For the American film, see Duress (film). For Duress (Revenge Episode), see Revenge (TV series).

In jurisprudence, duress or coercion refers to a situation whereby a person performs an act as a result of violence, threat or other pressure against the person. Black's Law Dictionary (6th ed.) defines duress as "any unlawful threat or coercion used... to induce another to act [or not act] in a manner [they] otherwise would not [or would]". Duress is pressure exerted upon a person to coerce that person to perform an act that he or she ordinarily would not perform. The notion of duress must be distinguished both from undue influence in the civil law and from necessity.

Duress has two aspects. One is that it negates the person's consent to an act, such as sexual activity or the entering into a contract; or, secondly, as a possible legal defense or justification to an otherwise unlawful act.[1] A defendant utilizing the duress defense admits to breaking the law, but claims that he/she is not liable because, even though the act broke the law, it was only performed because of extreme unlawful pressure.[2] In criminal law, a duress defense is similar to a plea of guilty, admitting partial culpability, so that if the defense is not accepted then the criminal act is admitted.

Duress or coercion can also be raised in an allegation of rape or other sexual assault to negate a defense of consent on the part of the person making the allegation.


A defendant who raises a defense of duress has actually done everything to constitute the actus reus of the crime and has the mens rea because he or she intended to do it in order to avoid some threatened or actual harm. Thus, some degree of culpability already attaches to the defendant for what was done. In criminal law, the defendant's motive for breaking the law is usually irrelevant although, if the reason for acting was a form of justification, this may reduce the sentence. The basis of the defense is that the duress actually overwhelmed the defendant's will and would also have overwhelmed the will of a person of ordinary courage (a hybrid test requiring both subjective evidence of the accused's state of mind, and an objective confirmation that the failure to resist the threats was reasonable), thus rendering the entire behavior involuntary. Thus, the liability should be reduced or discharged, making the defense one of exculpation.

The extent to which this defense should be allowed, if at all, is a matter of public policy. A state may say that no threat should force a person to deliberately break the law, particularly if this breach will cause significant loss or damage to a third person.[citation needed] Alternatively, a state may take the view that even though people may have ordinary levels of courage, they may nevertheless be coerced into agreeing to break the law and this human weakness should have some recognition in the law.

A variant of duress involves hostage taking, where a person is forced to commit a criminal act under the threat, say, that their family member or close associate will be immediately killed should they refuse. This has been raised in some cases of ransom where a person commits theft or embezzlement under orders from a kidnapper in order to secure their family member's life and freedom. However, duress is not a complete defense to all crimes. For example, the general rule, both at common law and today, is that duress is never a defense to murder; that is, one is never justified in killing another innocent person even if one's own life has been threatened, although this part may be questioned when multiple people are threatened with death if the defendant does not kill a single or fewer people than threatened (such a situation is similar to the trolley problem).[3]


For duress to qualify as a defense, four requirements must be met:[1]

  1. The threat must be of serious bodily harm or death
  2. The threatened harm must be greater than the harm caused by the crime
  3. The threat must be immediate and inescapable
  4. The defendant must have become involved in the situation through no fault of his or her own

A person may also raise a duress defense when force or violence is used to compel him to enter into a contract, or to discharge.

In contract law[edit]

Duress in the context of contract law is a common law defence brought about when one of the parties to the contract enjoyed an ascendant position vis-à-vis the other party and abused that position by subjecting the other to threats. A party who has entered into a contract under duress is entitled to rescind or set aside the contract, rendering it voidable (in equity).

Duress has been defined as a "threat of harm made to compel a person to do something against his or her will or judgment; esp., a wrongful threat made by one person to compel a manifestation of seeming assent by another person to a transaction without real volition". - Black's Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004)

Duress in contract law falls into two broad categories:[4]

  • Physical duress, and
  • Economic duress[5]

Physical duress[edit]

Duress to the person[edit]

Professor Ronald Griffin, Washburn University School of Law, Topeka, KS, puts physical duress simply: "Your money or your life." In Barton v Armstrong,[6] a decision of the Privy Council, Armstrong (defendant) sought to coerce Barton (plaintiff) into executing a deed relating to the sale of certain companies by threatening to have him murdered. While the plaintiff took the threats seriously, other business reasons existed for signing the contract. An innocent party wishing to set aside a contract for duress to the person need only prove that the threat was made and that it was a reason for entry into the contract. Furthermore, once it is established that the threat was made, the onus lies on the person who made the threat to prove that the threat made no contribution to the plaintiff's decision to enter the agreement.[7]

Common law took a narrow view of the concept of duress in that it was concerned with actual or threatened violence to the person or unlawful imprisonment. Equity, however, adopted a broader "fusion" view of what sort of pressure could constitute coercion for purposes of relief and has since prevailed. [8]

Duress to goods[edit]

In such cases, one party refuses to release the goods belonging to the other party until the other party enters into a contract with them. For example, in Hawker Pacific Pty Ltd v Helicopter Charter Pty Ltd (1991) 22 NSWLR 298, the contract was set aside after Hawker Pacific's threats to withhold the helicopter from the plaintiff unless further payments were made for repairing a botched paint job.

The elements of economic duress[edit]

Economic duress is the use of unlawful economic pressure to compel a party to a contract to agree to demands which they would not have otherwise.[9]

  1. Wrongful or improper threat: No precise definition of what is wrongful or improper. Examples include: morally wrong, criminal, or tortious conduct; one that is a threat to breach a contract "in bad faith" or threaten to withhold an admitted debt "in bad faith".
  2. No reasonable alternative (but to accept the other party's terms). If there is an available legal remedy, an available market substitute (in the form of funds, goods, or services), or any other sources of funds this element is not met.
  3. The threat actually induces the making of the contract. This is a subjective standard, and takes into account the victim's age, their background (especially their education), relationship of the parties, and the ability to receive advice.
  4. The other party caused the financial distress. The majority opinion is that the other party must have caused the distress, while the minority opinion allows them to merely take advantage of the distress.[citation needed] See Universe Tankships Inc of Monrovia v International Transport Workers Federation (The Universe Sentinel) [1981] UKHL 9[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gaines, Larry; Miller, LeRoy (2006). Criminal Justice In Action: The Core. Thomson/Wadsworth. ISBN 0-495-00305-0. 
  2. ^ http://www.pi1stclass.com/glossary.htm
  3. ^ People v. Anderson, 8 Cal. 4th 767, 50 P.3d 368, 122 Cal. Rptr. 2d 587 (2002).
  4. ^ http://www.4lawnotes.com/outlines/duress.htm
  5. ^ See Pao On v Lau Yiu Long [1979] 3 All ER 65; Pao On v Lau Yiu Long; Applied in Con Ange v Calogo Bloodstock AG t/as Coolmore Australia [2012] NSWSC 666.
  6. ^ Barton v Armstrong [1976] AC 104 BAILII
  7. ^ See Crescendo Management Pty Ltd v Westpac Banking Corp (1988) 19 NSWLR 40, 46.
  8. ^ See J Paterson, A Robertson and A Duke, Principles of Contract Law, (4th edn Thomson Reuters 2012)
  9. ^ "Universe Tankships Inc of Monrovia v International Transport Workers Federation (The Universe Sentinel) [1981] UKHL 9". Bailii. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  10. ^ "Universe Tankships Inc of Monrovia v International Transport Workers Federation (The Universe Sentinel) [1981] UKHL 9". Bailii. Retrieved 1 August 2014.