Coercion is a legal term that is used to describe a situation in which one person forces another person to do, or to refrain from doing, something against his will. Usually, this is done using psychological pressure or physical force. Other actions used to compel a person to behave in a certain way include deception and threatening to cause harm to the person, his family, or his property. In many jurisdictions, this is recognized as a defense to an act that would otherwise create liability, such as a crime, tort, or breach of contract. The term is often used interchangeably with duress, and it can arise in both civil and criminal cases.
In the context of criminal law, a person who coerces another can be found guilty of the crime of coercion as well as of the crime that was committed by the person under duress. Coercion is sometimes used as a defense by a person who has been accused of committing a crime. In asserting this defense, the defendant generally argues that he did not commit the crime of his own free will. Rather, another person made him commit the crime by using physical force or by threatening serious bodily harm or even death.
If a defendant can show that he was forced to commit a crime, the charges against him are normally dropped. An exception to this general rule is murder, which is indefensible on the grounds of duress in most jurisdictions. Additionally, a defendant may not be acquitted of the crime if he was not under a substantial amount of duress. For example, threats to the defendant's reputation or minor physical injuries may not excuse a defendant of committing a crime under duress.
In civil law cases, coercion can arise in estate issues. For instance, a person may intimidate a testator to write a will in a certain way against the testator’s desire. If the wrongdoer is a fiduciary, who is held to certain standards of trust, confidence, and good faith, this is referred to as undue influence. If a will has been created under duress or undue influence, the document will likely be rendered invalid during probate.
Coercion surfaces in contract law when one person unlawfully pressures another person into agreeing to certain contract terms and conditions. Typically, a person who enters into a contract under duress can void the contract and is not bound to adhere to its terms. If the contract is later ratified, however, it will be validated.