Published: Wed, 07 Mar 2018
Duress Law Cases
Barton v Armstrong  AC 104
A (the former chairman of a company) threatened B (the managing director)
with death if he did not agree to purchase A’s shares in the company. There was
some evidence that B thought the proposed agreement was a satisfactory business
arrangement both from his own point of view and that of the company. B executed
a deed on behalf of the company carrying out the agreement. He sought a
declaration that the deed was executed under duress and was void.
The Privy Council held that if A’s threats were “a” reason for B’s
executing the deed he was entitled to relief even though he might well have
entered into the contract if A had uttered no threats to induce him to do so.
The onus was on A to prove that the threats he made contributed nothing to B’s
decision to sign.
Skeate v Beale (1840) 11 Ad&El 983
A tenant who was threatened with the levying of distress by his landlord in
respect of rent owed, promised to pay part immediately and the balance within
one month. When the tenant failed to pay the balance, as agreed, the landlord
brought an action for the balance. The tenant pleaded that the distress was
wrongful in that a smaller sum only was owed. He had consented to the agreement
because the landlord threatened to sell the goods immediately unless the
agreement was made. This plea of duress was rejected.
Maskell v Horner  3 KB 106
Toll money was taken from the plaintiff under a threat to close down his
market stall and to seize his goods if he did not pay. These tolls were, in
fact, demanded from him with no right in law. The Court of Appeal allowed the
plaintiff to recover all the toll money paid, even though the payments had been
made over a considerable period of time. Lord Reading CJ stated that if a person
pays money, which he is not bound to pay, under a compulsion of urgent and
pressing necessity or of seizure, he can recover it as money had and received
under the law of restitution.
It was held that there was a wider restitutionary rule that money paid to
avoid goods being seized or to obtain their release could be recovered. Further,
it was held that in the present case there was a compulsory agreement to enter
into, whereas in Skeate the agreement was entered into voluntarily.
NOTE: The distinction between the Skeate v Beale line of cases and the
decision in Maskell v Horner is hard to follow, and it has been pointed out that
the peculiar result would follow that although an agreement to pay money under
duress of goods is enforceable, sums paid in pursuance of such an agreement by
the coerced can be recovered in an action for money had and received under the
law of restitution.
The Sibeon and The Sibotre  1 Lloyd’s Rep 293
Kerr J stated: “if I should be compelled to sign a lease or some other
contract for a nominal but legally sufficient consideration under an imminent
threat of having my house burnt down or a valuable picture slashed through
without any threat of physical violence to anyone, I do not think that the law
would uphold the agreement… The true question is ultimately whether or not
the agreement in question is to be regarded as having been concluded
The Sibeon and The Sibotre  (above)
The charterers of two ships renegotiated the rates of hire after a threat by
them that they would go bankrupt and cease to trade if payments under the
contract of hire were not lowered. Since they also represented that they had no
substantial assets, this would have left the owners with no effective legal
remedy. The owners would have had to lay up the vessels and would then have been
unable to meet mortgages and charges – a fact known by the charterers. The
threats themselves were false in that there was no question of the charterers
being bankrupted by high rates of hire.
Kerr J rejected the earlier confines of duress. But, he said, in a
contractual situation commercial pressure is not enough to prove economic
duress. The court must, he said, be satisfied that the consent of the other
party was overborne by compulsion so as to deprive him of his free consent and
agreement. This would depend on the facts in each case. He considered that two
questions had to be asked before the test could be satisfied: (1) did the victim
protest at the time of the demand and (2) did the victim regard the transaction
as closed or did he intend to repudiate the new agreement? Kerr J considered
that the owners would have been entitled to set aside the renegotiated rates on
the ground of economic duress, but that on the present facts their will and
consent had not been ‘overborne’ by what was ordinary commercial pressures.
The Atlantic Baron  QB 705
The builders of a ship demanded a 10% increase on the contract price from the
owners largely because the value of the US dollar fell by 10%, or threatened not
to complete the ship. The owners paid the increased rate demanded from them,
although they protested that there was no legal basis on which the demand could
be made. The owners were commercially compelled to pay since, at the time of the
threat, they were negotiating a very lucrative contract for the charter of the
ship being built.
Mocatta J decided that this constituted economic duress. The illegitimate
pressure exerted by the building company was their threat to break the
construction contract. Where a threat to break a contract had led to a further
contract, that contract, even though it was made for good consideration, was
voidable by reason of economic duress. However, the right to have the contract
set aside could be lost by affirmation. The plaintiffs had delayed in reclaiming
the extra 10% until eight months later, after the delivery of a second ship.
This delay deafeated the plaintiff’s claim for the rescission of the contract to
pay the extra 10%.
Pao On v Lau Yiu Long  AC 614
The plaintiff had threatened not to proceed with a contract for the sale of
shares, unless the other side agreed to a renegotiation of certain subsidiary
arrangements. Anxious to complete the main agreement, but knowing that they
could claim specific performance of it, the defendant, wishing to avoid
litigation, agreed. When the plaintiff later tried to enforce these arrangements
the defendant claimed that they had been extracted by duress, and were therefore
voidable. The Privy Council held that the plaintiff was entitled to succeed. On
the facts, the defendant considered the matter thoroughly, chose to avoid
litigation and formed the opinion that there was no risk in the subsidiary
arrangements. In short, there was commercial pressure, but no coercion.
Lord Scarman agreed with the observations of Kerr J in The Sibeon and The
Sibotre that in a contractual situation, commercial pressure is not enough.
There must be present some factor ‘which could be regarded as a coercion of his
will so as to vitiate his consent’. In determining whether there was a coercion
of will such that there was no true consent, it is material to enquire: whether
the person alleged to have been coerced did or did not protest; whether, at the
time he was allegedly coerced into making the contract, he did or did not have
an alternative course open to him such as an adequate legal remedy; whether he
was independently advised; and whether after entering the contract he took steps
to avoid it. All these matters are relevant in determining whether he acted
voluntarily or not.
B&S Contractors v Victor Green Publications  ICR 419
A contractor who had undertaken to erect stands for an exhibition at Olympia
told his client, less than a week before the exhibition was due to open, that
the contract would be cancelled unless the client paid an additional sum to meet
claims which were being made against the contractor by his workforce. The
consequence of not having the stands erected in time would have been disastrous
for the client in that it would have gravely damaged his reputation and might
have exposed him to heavy claims for damages from exhibitors to whom space on
the stands had been let. In these circumstances it was held that the payment had
been made under duress and that the client was entitled to recover it back.
The Alev  1 Lloyd’s Rep 138
The plaintiffs chartered a vessel to hirers who were carrying the defendants
cargo of steel. The hirers defaulted on the payments and the plaintiffs were
obliged by the terms of the bills of lading to carry the cargo. This would
involve extra costs. They therefore negotiated with the defendants who agreed to
pay extra costs and not to detain or arrest the vessel while in port. This
agreement was secured through threats, including a statement that unless the
defendants paid the extra costs they would not get their cargo. When the ship
was in port and had commenced unloading the defendants ignored the agreement and
arrested the ship. They pleaded duress to any breach of contract and claimed
It was held that the agreement clearly fell within the principles of economic
duress. During their negotiations the plaintiffs did make an illegal threat to
withhold cargo and they were fully aware that, since they were legally obliged
to carry the cargo, even if at a loss of profit to themselves, such a threat
would be unlawful. The defendant’s right to rely on duress was therefore
established and the contract was voidable on the ground of duress.
Morgan v Fry  2 QB 710.
Lord Denning MR defined the tort of intimidation as follows:
“The essential ingredients are these: there must be a threat by one
person to use unlawful means (such as violence or a tort or a breach of
contract) so as to compel another to obey his wishes and the person so
threatened must comply with the demand rather than risk the threat being carried
into execution. In such circumstances the person damnified by the compliance can
sue for intimidation.”
D&C Builders v Rees  2 QB 617
In this case (which has been previously considered in relation to promissory
estoppel), Lord Denning equated the undue pressure brought to bear on the
plaintiffs with the tort of intimidation. His Lordship refused to exercise
estoppel because of the wife’s inequitable actions since she knew the builders
needed the money. Back To Top?
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