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This article is written by Aditya Rastogi, pursuing a Diploma in Advanced Contract Drafting, Negotiation, and Dispute Resolution from Lawsikho.

The doctrine of duress : definition and meaning

This doctrine of duress is applicable in the cases where an act is performed by an individual as a result of fear, threat or influence. This doctrine acts as a weapon to the people who have been victim to the same kind of situation and in the pursuit of the same have committed an act. The limits to what kind and extent of pressure are acceptable are something that is fading away with time but, the doctrine of duress aims to identify such limits and the fine line between the two. 

The law of contract in this doctrine is applicable for the purpose of eliminating any kind of undue influence or pressure while the parties are entering into a contract. The concept of this doctrine originated from the known notion that no party should enter into a contract with another as a result of any pressure or influence. It provides for the concept of ‘Freedom to Contract’. This article majorly aims at covering the evolution of the doctrine of duress, elements of duress and types of duress.

Evolution of doctrine of duress

Initially, the doctrine of duress was applicable only in the cases of actual or threatened violence to an individual. The happening of an unlawful act or a wrongful act was something which was extremely important to establish the applicability of the doctrine of duress, the presence of fear in victims was something which was not of much importance to ensure that the doctrine of duress is to be applied.

This vague line of difference between violent or threatened act and the act which is performed under the influence was making it very difficult to establish in the court of law whether an act would fall under the category of the torts or, under the category of the doctrine of duress, thus, making it an overlapping concept. Equity in law has always been about providing remedies in cases where precedents are absent and even here, it was used to deal with promises which had been extracted by the ways of unethical or immoral use of methods such as superior bargaining position, as found in confidential or fiduciary relationships, which later inhibit the victim’s free exercise of his will to enter into a contract. 

Subsequent development of the doctrine

Historically, there existed only one exception with respect to the common law rule which stated that duress would only create a contract that is voidable when induced by threat or, personal violence, that is, duress of goods. An early incursion in this area began in the early eighteenth century in cases with regard to the wrongful seizure or detention of property that is personal in nature. There were no parallel developments in countries like England. Instead, English courts completely devoted their energy to the development of an illogical distinction between payments of money when the duress is made, and a promise made to pay money in the future scenario. In the previous case, the victim was provided with the restitution of his money, whereas in the latter case the victim was ordered to pay the money to its coercer.

When summarising, common-law distress can be considered as a crude, ill-defined and obscured notion, which is little used and is of little use except in the cases of averting threats. At the same time, when invoked by the courts more often, undue influence or pressure have been found to lack sufficient definition in order to be effective.

Elements of duress

It has become extremely common that people are entering into contracts under some or the other influence which is making the concept of entering into an agreement quite ambiguous and blurred. Let us understand this with the help of important case law on this point. In the case of Barton vs. Armstrong, Barton and Armstrong were major company shareholders and it was decided in a meeting that Barton would buy Armstrong’s interest. They had an agreement drawn up and executed. Barton subsequently claimed that he was coerced into buying Armstrong’s share and that Armstrong had threatened to have him murdered if he did not buy it. He further alleged that Armstrong also exerted unlawful pressure over him, which Barton claimed made the terms of the agreement voidable. 

It was stated that in a huge number of cases the only option left with the individual is to act in a certain way due to the pressure and influence of another. Therefore considering that every agreement which is entered into due to pressure is always liable to be avoided on the basis of duress means that almost all agreements will be considered vulnerable to attack this relative ground.

There are two important elements to be present in order to ensure the applicability and seek remedy under the same. The elements are mentioned below:

1) There must be an element of pressure that results in the compulsion of the will of the individual entering into the contract and,

2) Their pressure must be considered illegitimate in the eyes of law.

In the cases where there is a contract being entered by the parties and it is inclusive of both the above elements, then in those cases the parties who are victim to the same can be provided with the remedy under the doctrine of duress.

The elements to determine the applicability of the doctrine of duress were laid down in the case law Universe Tankship Inc of Monrovia v. ITF;

  • The first element which majorly talks about the presence of pressure is investigative in nature and majorly deals with the question of whether the consent was provided willingly or not by the parties to the respective contract in question. 
  • The second element is mandatory in nature and states that the pressure exerted upon the individual or the party to the contract should be termed illegitimate in the eyes of the law which means that it defines the kind the pressure and the limitation to it. Every kind of pressure cannot be considered as pressure as per the doctrine of duress. 

Types and forms of duress

In the initial years when the concept of the doctrine of duress was new, the scope of the same was quite narrow and short-termed. But lately, its scope was extended, and it became wide in nature. The types and forms of duress can be divided into various forms as provided below.

Duress of person

Duress of the person may consist in violence to the person, or threats of violence, or in imprisonment, whether actual or threatened. The threat of violence need not be directed at the claimant: a threat of violence against the claimant’s spouse or near relations and a threat against the claimant’s employees have been held to constitute duress. It is suggested that even a threat against a stranger should be enough if the complainant genuinely thought that the submission was the only way to prevent the stranger from being injured or worse. 

In the case of duress by person, the victim only needs to prove that the contract was entered into as a result of the pressure or influence supported by the relevant proof. Then in this case the courts simply determine that the pressure exerted was illegitimate or not. Once determined, the courts accordingly act upon the same. The said pressure should be capable enough to affect the decision-making power of the individual too.

Duress Colore Officii

These are the cases where the pressure is generally in the form of unlawful demand of the payments by the public official. A distinction is supposed to be considered in the cases where the person victimised paid the sum of money in order to obtain any kind of a service from a public official and cases where the individual paid the sum of money through tax or impost. 

Duress of goods

Any kind of threat that is related to the destruction of the property or the goods of an individual who is the party to the agreement or the contract amounts to the duress of goods. The threat necessarily should not be of the destruction of the associated property or goods, but it can also be related to seizure or the detainment of the respective goods. 

When an individual submits to the defendant’s pressure which is illegitimate in nature and pays the sum of money and readily enters into an agreement in order to recover the goods which have been wrongfully seized or detained by the defendant party or done in order to avoid immediate seizure or any kind of damage to his goods, it is recognized in the eyes of the courts. In such cases, the complainant normally has no alternative which seems to be practical but to submit to the defendant’s threat and pressure.

Economic duress

Other kinds of threats which are different from the certain kinds of threats or the pressure which are related to the property or goods or life but, have influenced the decision-making power of the individual then in such cases also the doctrine of duress are applicable in the form of the economic duress. Such a threat also is an offence in the eyes of law. In the case of economic duress, the main question to consider is whether the individual had any practical or appropriate alternative available. If any such kind of alternative was available, then in that case the economic duress has no role to play. 

Conclusion

The doctrine of duress is one of the finest doctrines under English Law. Under Indian Law, it is generally referred to as coercion. The nature of both concepts are the same. This doctrine majorly looks at the intent due to which the contract was entered into which further clarifies and strengthens the stems of the agreements and contracts. 

This concept was when initially introduced and adapted it had a very narrow scope and had less applicability but, later on, its practical aspect increased hence, widening the scope of the doctrine. This doctrine is of high relevance and plays a major role in determining the scope and legal credibility of the contract or the agreement which has been entered into by the parties. 

References


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