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Duress is a legal term often used in the criminal defense of a person to indicate that the person committed the action due to threat of violence or intimidation. Specifically, duress is used by a defendant arguing that some person or agency was placing serious and potentially violent pressure on the person to commit the crime. Duress often means immediate harm was being indicated and that the defendant did not know of or have a reasonable avenue for removing himself or herself from the person or agency making the threat. To be effectively used, this defense also usually requires that the crime committed by the defendant is of less severity than the threatened action against him or her. It can also be used in civil law to dissolve contracts entered into under intimidation or threat of violence.
In order for a defendant or lawyer representing him or her to effectively prove that a crime was committed under duress, three elements must be proven as being present. There must have been a reasonable fear on the defendant’s part, the fear must regard a source of immediate harm, and that harm must be of a serious nature such as critical bodily injury or death. An example of all three of these elements would be a defendant arguing that someone else was holding him or her at gunpoint to illegally steal money from a cash register. The defendant could prove duress by expressing fear of the gun, which is the immediate source of harm, and which could have caused serious or deadly injury to the defendant.
Laws can also allow duress to be used as a way of breaking contracts, or having a contract declared unenforceable. If someone proves that he or she signed an agreement while under duress, such as physical intimidation or violent threats, then a court can order the agreement nullified or unenforceable. Threatening action that a contract allows one person to do, such as threatening legal consequences for not paying money agreed to in a contract that states the party can use legal action to ensure payment, is not enough to allow a contract to be invalidated.
Some areas have also passed laws to allow for contracts to be nullified if entered into in a way that is very stressful but not necessarily constituting duress. This is to attempt to counteract particularly high-pressure sales techniques and to allow a person to change his or her mind within a reasonable time frame. Such laws often allow a specific period of time in which such a contract can be nullified and that time period varies from region to region.