Define: Duress Of Circumstances

Duress Of Circumstances
Duress Of Circumstances
Video Guide For Duress Of Circumstances
Quick Summary of Duress Of Circumstances

In UK law, “duress of circumstances” refers to a defence that can be raised in criminal cases where a person commits an offence under extreme and unavoidable pressure or coercion. Unlike traditional duress, which involves threats of harm or violence from another individual, duress of circumstances arises when the accused is compelled to act unlawfully due to circumstances beyond their control, such as a natural disaster or imminent danger. To successfully invoke duress of circumstances as a defence, the accused must demonstrate that they had a reasonable belief that the only way to avoid a greater harm was to commit the offence. However, this defence is subject to stringent requirements and is not applicable in all situations. Courts assess the immediacy and proportionality of the threat faced by the accused, as well as whether there were reasonable alternatives to committing the offence. If the defence is accepted, the accused may be acquitted or receive a reduced sentence based on the circumstances of the case.

Full Definition Of Duress Of Circumstances

Duress of circumstances is a recognition in English Law that sometimes it is necessary to commit a crime in order to avoid a greater evil

In August 2009, Dr. Sherif Abdel-Fattah was issued a ticket after he was caught breaking the speed limit in a bid to reach a woman who was severely bleeding. If he had not acted as he did, it is possible that his patient could have died, which many would regard as a worse outcome than a doctor speeding.

Although the situation Dr Abdel-Fattah faced is thankfully a rare occurrence, the law in England and Wales recognises that sometimes committing a crime is the lesser of two evils. The law, therefore, recognises a defence known as duress of circumstances.

What is Duress?

Duress is, in essence, a defence against a criminal charge on the grounds that sufficient pressure was placed on the defendant that his or her free will was overcome. In effect, it is an admission that the defendant may have performed the actus reus of the crime with the requisite mens rea but their state of mind was sufficiently clouded by the coercion of another that the mens rea aspect may be disregarded.

What is the duty of circumstances?

In most cases, duress will be caused by another person or group of people but this is not always the case. As in Dr Abdel-Fattah’s case, sometimes events seem to conspire in such a way that a person feels they are caught between a rock and a hard place: they must either commit a crime or suffer some terrible consequences that are not of their own making. In such a situation, it is the circumstances as a whole that cause the duress, not any particular person or event.

When May Duress of Circumstances be Used?

According to the decision in R v. Conway [1988], duress of circumstances is only available if the defendant reasonably believed, at the time the offence was committed, that it was necessary to commit the criminal act in question “in order to avoid death or serious injury” to himself or another.

Are There Limits to Duress of Circumstances?

The threat does not need to be immediate, although it does need to be imminent. It is not sufficient to raise duress as a defence where the defendant was threatened with death “sometime this month,”  for example, although R v. Abdul Hussain and Others [1999], where a group hijacked an aircraft in order to prevent their deaths by Iraqi authorities, demonstrates that an “imminent and operative” threat will be sufficient.

The Conway case was concerned with a driving offence only, but in R v. Pommell (1995), the Court of Appeal extended the defence to all crimes except murder. As with standard duress claims, duress is only a defence where the defendant has either taken all reasonable steps to overcome the perceived threat, such as contacting the police where an opportunity to do so arose, or no such reasonable steps were possible.

Duress of circumstances exists as a defence for occasions where necessity requires that a crime be committed for the greater good. It is an extension of the principle of only prosecuting when doing so is in the public interest, as the spirit of the law will not be upheld where otherwise honest and decent people are convicted of crimes they could not help committing with good conscience or in the interests of self-preservation. The defence is limited in its application in order to stay within the limits of necessity, but where it is available, it may possibly be fully acquitted at the discretion of the judge.

Duress Of Circumstances FAQ'S

Duress of circumstances, also known as necessity or justification, is a defence in criminal law that arises when an individual commits a crime under extreme and unavoidable pressure or compulsion, typically to avoid imminent harm or danger.

Duress of circumstances occurs when an individual reasonably believes they have no reasonable alternative but to commit a crime to prevent imminent harm to themselves or others, and the harm caused by the crime is less severe than the harm prevented.

Examples include:

  • Breaking into a building to escape a fire or natural disaster.
  • Stealing food or medicine to prevent starvation or serious illness.
  • Driving recklessly to escape an assailant or dangerous situation.

Duress of circumstances involves pressure or compulsion arising from external factors such as natural disasters or emergencies, while duress by threats involves threats of harm or violence by another person.

Duress of circumstances may be a valid defence in criminal cases if the defendant can establish that they acted out of necessity to prevent imminent harm and that the harm caused by their actions was proportional to the harm avoided.

Courts consider various factors, including the immediacy and severity of the threat, the availability of alternative courses of action, the defendant’s belief in the necessity of their actions, and the proportionality of the response to the threat.

No, duress of circumstances is a limited defence and may not excuse all criminal conduct. The courts assess each case on its merits and consider whether the defendant’s actions were reasonable and proportional given the circumstances.

Duress of circumstances is primarily a defence in criminal cases, but similar principles may apply in civil cases involving claims of negligence or liability arising from actions taken under extreme pressure or compulsion.

Defendants seeking to establish duress of circumstances may need to provide evidence of the imminent threat or danger faced, their lack of reasonable alternatives, and their belief in the necessity of their actions to prevent harm.

Individuals seeking legal advice regarding duress of circumstance should consult with qualified criminal defence attorneys who can assess the specific facts of their case, provide guidance on available defences, and represent their interests in legal proceedings.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 9th June 2024.

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