Define: Vis Compulsiva

Vis Compulsiva
Vis Compulsiva
Quick Summary of Vis Compulsiva

Vis compulsiva, also known as vis kom-puhl-siv-uh, is a Latin phrase that describes a compelling force that compels individuals to act against their own volition. This force can manifest itself physically or psychologically and is frequently employed to intimidate or coerce individuals into compliance. For instance, when an individual is held at gunpoint and compelled to surrender their wallet, this constitutes an instance of vis compulsiva. In this scenario, the threat of violence is used to force the victim to relinquish their belongings. Another example is when an individual is coerced into signing a contract under duress. This may occur if someone is threatened with physical harm or blackmail unless they sign the document. These instances serve as illustrations of how vis compulsiva can be employed to exert dominance over another individual through fear and intimidation.

What is the dictionary definition of Vis Compulsiva?
Dictionary Definition of Vis Compulsiva

Vis compulsiva, a historical term, refers to a compelling force that compels individuals to act against their own volition. This force instils fear and leaves individuals feeling as though they have no alternative but to comply with the commands given to them.

Full Definition Of Vis Compulsiva

“Vis compulsiva,” a Latin term meaning “compulsive force,” is a legal concept used primarily in criminal and contract law. It describes a situation in which external pressure overpowers an individual’s will, compelling them to act against their own volition. This concept is crucial in determining the validity of contracts, the voluntariness of confessions, and the culpability of actions taken under duress. This overview delves into the historical development, legal principles, and application of vis compulsiva in British law.

Historical Development

The concept of duress, including vis compulsiva, has deep roots in common law, originating from Roman law, where “vis” refers to force or violence. In English law, the notion of duress evolved to include not only physical coercion (vis absoluta) but also threats of harm (vis compulsiva). The development of these principles can be traced back to medieval legal doctrines, where the courts recognised that agreements made under duress were not truly voluntary and therefore lacked genuine consent.

Legal Principles of Vis Compulsiva

Definition and Elements

Vis compulsiva refers to duress by threat, where a person is forced to act due to the fear of some harm. The essential elements include:

  1. Threat of Harm: There must be a threat, whether explicit or implicit, which can be physical, psychological, or economic.
  2. Immediacy and Severity: The threat must be immediate and serious enough to overpower the will of an ordinary person.
  3. Lack of Voluntary Consent: The coerced action must be taken without genuine consent, as the individual’s free will is compromised.
  4. Causal Link: There must be a direct link between the threat and the action taken by the coerced individual.

Types of Coercion

  1. Physical Coercion (Vis Absoluta): Involves direct physical force or violence. For example, forcing someone to sign a contract at gunpoint.
  2. Psychological Coercion (Vis Compulsiva): Involves threats of future harm or adverse consequences, such as threatening to harm a loved one or to ruin someone’s reputation.

Application in Contract Law

Validity of Contracts

Contracts entered into under vis compulsiva are generally considered voidable. The coerced party can seek to have the contract set aside on grounds of duress. For a claim of duress to be successful in contract law, the following must be established:

  1. Illegitimate Pressure: The threat or pressure must be unlawful or illegitimate. Lawful actions, even if they exert pressure, do not typically constitute duress.
  2. Overborne Will: The pressure must have overborne the will of the party claiming duress, leaving them with no reasonable alternative but to agree to the contract.

Case Law

Key cases in British law illustrate the application of vis compulsiva:

  • Barton v. Armstrong [1976] AC 104: In this case, the Privy Council held that a contract signed under threats of violence was voidable. The court recognised that the threats need not be the sole reason for entering the contract; it was sufficient if they were a significant factor.
  • DSND Subsea Ltd v. Petroleum Geo Services ASA [2000] BLR 530: This case involved economic duress where threats to withdraw essential services compelled the other party to renegotiate contract terms. The court found that the threat was illegitimate and the contract modification was voidable.

Application in Criminal Law

Defence of Duress

In criminal law, duress can serve as a defence to certain offences. The defence is grounded in the principle that it is unjust to punish someone for actions they were forced to undertake under threat of harm. However, the application of this defence is limited and subject to strict conditions:

  1. Nature of Threat: The threat must be of death or serious injury.
  2. Immediacy: The threat must be immediate and impending, leaving no safe avenue of escape.
  3. Reasonable Belief: The defendant must have a reasonable belief that the threat will be carried out.
  4. Proportionality: The actions taken under duress must be proportionate to the threat faced.


  1. Murder and Treason: Duress is not a defence to murder or treason in British law. The rationale is that taking an innocent life cannot be justified, even under threat.
  2. Voluntary Exposure to Risk: If the defendant voluntarily placed themselves in a situation where they were likely to be subjected to threats (e.g., joining a violent gang), the defence of duress may not be available.

Case Law

Key cases that illustrate the defence of duress include:

  • R v. Howe [1987] AC 417: The House of Lords ruled that duress is not a defence to murder, emphasising that the law must protect innocent lives over those who commit murder under threat.
  • R v. Hasan [2005] This case clarified that the defence of duress is not available if the defendant voluntarily associates with criminals, foreseeing the risk of being coerced into criminal activity.

Application in Confessions

Voluntariness of Confessions

The principle of vis compulsiva also extends to the admissibility of confessions in criminal proceedings. A confession obtained under duress is not admissible as evidence, as it is not considered to be made voluntarily.

  1. Inducement and Threats: Any confession obtained through inducement, threat, or promise by a person in authority is inadmissible.
  2. Psychological Pressure: Subtle forms of psychological pressure, such as prolonged interrogation or manipulation, can also render a confession involuntary.

Legal Safeguards

British law provides several safeguards to ensure that confessions are obtained voluntarily:

  1. Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE): This Act sets out the legal framework for the conduct of police officers, including the treatment of suspects and the handling of confessions. Under PACE, the police must ensure that confessions are not obtained through oppression or inducement.
  2. PACE Codes of Practice: These codes provide detailed guidelines on the conduct of interviews and the treatment of suspects, aiming to prevent coercion and ensure the reliability of confessions.

Case Law

Key cases highlighting the importance of voluntariness in confessions include:

  • R v. Fulling [1987] QB 426: The Court of Appeal held that a confession obtained through psychological pressure was inadmissible. The case underscored the need for confessions to be free from any form of coercion.
  • R v. Paris, Abdullahi and Miller (1993) 97 Cr App R 99: This case involved confessions obtained after prolonged and aggressive questioning. The Court of Appeal ruled that the confessions were inadmissible due to the oppressive nature of the interrogation.

Comparative Perspectives

Civil Law Jurisdictions

In civil law jurisdictions, the concept of vis compulsiva is similarly recognised, though it may be termed differently. For example, in French law, “violence morale” encompasses psychological pressure and is grounds for the annulment of contracts.

  1. French Law: Under French law, contracts entered into under “violence” (which includes both physical and psychological coercion) can be annulled. The French Civil Code (Article 1140) provides that “violence” involves pressure that makes a person fear for their life, safety, or honour.
  2. German Law: The German Civil Code (BGB) allows for the annulment of contracts where there is an unlawful threat (Section 123). This includes threats that induce fear of significant harm.

International Law

International law also recognises the principle of vis compulsiva, particularly in human rights contexts. The prohibition of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under instruments like the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) reflects the broader application of this principle.

  1. ECHR: Article 3 of the ECHR prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment. This has been interpreted to include psychological coercion, reflecting the broader principle of protecting individuals from forced actions.
  2. United Nations Convention Against Torture: This international treaty similarly prohibits any act of torture or other forms of coercion, underscoring the global recognition of the principles underlying vis compulsiva.


The concept of vis compulsiva is highly important in British law as it affects the validity of contracts, the admissibility of confessions, and the culpability of criminal actions. By acknowledging and dealing with coercion, the law aims to safeguard individual autonomy and ensures that actions performed under duress are not unfairly attributed to the coerced individual. The interaction between historical development, legal principles, and contemporary application shows the enduring significance of vis compulsiva in promoting justice and fairness within the legal system.

In contract law, this concept assures that agreements are made voluntarily and with genuine consent. In criminal law, it can be used as a defence, reflecting the principle that individuals should not be punished for actions taken under immediate threat of harm. Furthermore, the necessity of voluntariness in confessions upholds the integrity of the legal process, ensuring that evidence is reliable and obtained fairly.

In summary, vis compulsiva stresses the importance of free will and consent in legal transactions and actions, providing protection against coercion and ensuring that justice prevails.

Vis Compulsiva FAQ'S

Vis compulsiva, also known as compulsive behaviour, refers to an irresistible urge or impulse to engage in certain actions or behaviours, often resulting in repetitive or excessive behaviour.

Yes, vis compulsiva is classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). It falls under the category of obsessive-compulsive and related disorders.

In some cases, vis compulsiva can be used as a legal defence, particularly in situations where the individual’s actions were a direct result of their compulsive behavior and they lacked the ability to control or resist it. However, the success of this defence may vary depending on the specific circumstances and jurisdiction.

Yes, vis compulsiva can be considered a disabling condition if it significantly impairs an individual’s ability to perform their job or daily activities. However, the specific criteria for qualifying as a disability may vary depending on the jurisdiction and the individual’s specific circumstances.

Yes, individuals with vis compulsiva may be protected under disability discrimination laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States. These laws prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various areas, including employment, housing, and public accommodations.

Yes, vis compulsiva can often be treated with medication, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or other psychiatric medications. However, the effectiveness of medication may vary from person to person, and it is important to consult with a healthcare professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

In some cases, vis compulsiva can lead to criminal behavior if the individual’s compulsions involve illegal activities. However, it is important to note that not all individuals with vis compulsiva engage in criminal behavior, and the presence of the disorder does not automatically excuse or justify illegal actions.

Vis compulsiva alone may not be sufficient grounds for obtaining a restraining order. However, if the individual’s compulsive behavior poses a threat or danger to another person’s safety or well-being, it may be possible to obtain a restraining order based on the specific circumstances and evidence presented.

There is evidence to suggest that vis compulsiva may have a genetic component, meaning it can be inherited. However, the exact causes of the disorder are still not fully understood, and other factors such as environmental influences may also play a role.

While there is no known cure for vis compulsiva, it can often be effectively managed and treated through a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. With proper treatment and support, individuals with vis compulsiva can lead fulfilling and productive lives.

Related Phrases
No related content found.

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: 8th June 2024.

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

  • Page URL:
  • Modern Language Association (MLA):Vis Compulsiva. DLS Solicitors. June 12 2024
  • Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):Vis Compulsiva. DLS Solicitors. (accessed: June 12 2024).
  • American Psychological Association (APA):Vis Compulsiva. Retrieved June 12 2024, from website:
Avatar of DLS Solicitors
DLS Solicitors : Family Law Solicitors

Our team of professionals are based in Alderley Edge, Cheshire. We offer clear, specialist legal advice in all matters relating to Family Law, Wills, Trusts, Probate, Lasting Power of Attorney and Court of Protection.

All author posts