Duress

From Academic Kids

Duress or coercion (as a term of jurisprudence) is a possible legal defense, via excuse, by which a defendant may argue that they should not be held criminally liable for actions that broke the law. 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]." The notion of duress must be distinguished from undue influence.

A possible example of duress would involve robbing a bank in order to pay a ransom. Courts generally do not accept a defense of duress when harm done by the defendant, such as murder, was greater than the court's perception of the coercive influence.

A contract entered under duress is voidable.

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Duress in contract law

Duress in the context of contract law is a common law defence, and if you are successful in proving that the contract is vitiated by duress, you can rescind the contract, since it is then voidable.

Duress in contract law (in Australia at least) falls into two broad categories:

  • Physical duress, and
  • Economic duress

Physical duress

Duress to the person

In Barton v. Armstrong [1976] AC 104, a decision of the Privy Council, Armstrong threatened to kill Barton if he did not sign a contract, which was set aside due to duress to the person. An innocent party wishing to set aside a contract for duress to the person need only to prove that the threat was made and that it was a reason for entry into the contract; the onus of proof then shifts to the other party to prove that the threat had no effect in causing the party to enter into the contract.

Duress to goods

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.

Economic duress

Although hard bargining occurs legitimately in commercial situations, there reaches a point where it becomes economic duress. Putting aside issues of consideration, this often involves one party threatening to breach an existing contract between the two parties unless the innocent party agrees to enter into another contract. The contract is voidable if the innocent party can prove that it had no other practical choice (as opposed to legal choice) but to agree to the contract.

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