Doing “Practical Justice” for Duress in Contract Law


  • M.H. Ogilvie



Cases of duress in contract law are few and far between. Most are concerned with improper threats or taking advantage of a weaker party to procure a contract rather than with actual physical threats of the “[y]our money or your life” variety, which are more likely to be controlled by the criminal law. A recent decision on a preliminary issue of law in relation to duress in the English Court of Appeal answered an interesting question that appears never to have been raised in earlier cases about duress, that is, whether rescission of a contract can be granted where restitution is impossible because one of the parties has destroyed documents relating to the contract as required by the contract so that they could not be restored. The trial judge found that rescission could not be granted and that no other remedy was available in the common law for duress, but the Court of Appeal reversed that finding by assimilating the fact situation with those in which equity has done “practical justice,” thereby further fusing the common law and equity relating to duress and undue influence, and possibly also fraud as well. The facts of this highly complex case, which also involved conflict of laws, mistake, frustration, and uncertainty have yet to be resolved at trial, but the Court of Appeal entertained two preliminary questions of law, duress, and conflict of laws before sending the case to trial. This comment is focused on the duress point.






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