If you have been forced into a transaction because of the actions of another, that transaction may be set aside in certain circumstances. The doctrine of duress is well established, and works to protect parties who have been forced into an agreement by the illegitimate pressure or threats from the other party, by giving rights to the aggrieved party to void transactions.

What is duress?

In order to establish a claim for duress, a party must demonstrate that:

  1. they were subject to illegitimate pressure; and
  2. the illegitimate pressure induced the plaintiff to confer a benefit on the other party.[1] What is a ‘benefit’ in this sense is broad, and can include entering into an agreement on unfavourable terms.

But what about circumstances, for example in a commercial transaction, where one party is exerting legitimate pressure on the other? Can legitimate pressure, which is lawful, cease to be a normal incident of commercial transactions and amount to duress? Or should prospective plaintiffs rely on the statutory protections afforded by the Australian Consumer Law?

While the law in this area is continuing to develop, we may be given a clearer picture soon.

In the upcoming months, the High Court of Australia will hear an appeal in the matter of Kennedy v Thorne [2016] FamCAFC 189. This will see the High Court examining the enforceability of a prenuptial agreement insisted upon by one party prior to the marriage; in essence, the consideration will be whether the conduct in that context, whilst lawful, may nevertheless have been illegitimate.

Justice Edelman, newly appointed to the High Court, has worked extensively in the field of restitution, which encompasses the concept of duress. With Thorne v Kennedy being His Honour’s first opportunity to deliver a judgment in the field of restitution, it seems likely that this opening act will cast significant light on the scope of duress. Whilst Thorne v Kennedy will be heard in a family law context, the ramifications to the general commercial law may nevertheless be significant.

When is pressure illegitimate?

The courts have recognised that unlawful conduct, such as threats to a person or threats to detain another’s property, is illegitimate. For instance, if a salesman said to you “Buy this pen for $1,000 or I will beat you up”, the resultant transaction could be voided, on the ground that you only entered into the transaction because of duress. However, what amounts to duress from seemingly ‘lawful’ commercial pressures is still controversial. Watch this space insofar as Thorne v Kennedy may provide clarity in the near future.

What if pressure is legitimate?

Threats are often made in commercial contexts to compel another party into action:

“I’ll sue!’

“I’ll breach!”

“I won’t supply to you”

Will threats of this nature be considered duress, despite the fact that they are ‘legitimate’? Several courts have considered the extent to which commercial pressures can and should constitute “economic duress”.

In the leading authority in this area, McHugh JA stated that pressure will be illegitimate if it consists of unlawful threats or amounts to unconscionable conduct.[2] However, he left the category of “economic” duress (that is, conduct that is not unlawful) open, only to say that overwhelming pressure, which does not amount to unlawful conduct, will not necessarily constitute duress.

For instance, Company A might say to Company B that they will not supply to them unless Company B agrees to some onerous conditions. Despite the pressure that may be applied, there may not necessarily be a case for duress, as the conduct is not unlawful. What is clear from the case is that, to constitute duress, a high bar has been set.

The phrase “economic duress” has become used frequently, but remains frustratingly undefined, and subsequent courts have been reluctant to interfere with commercial dealings. In Equiticorp Finance Ltd (in liq) v Bank of New Zealand the issue was revisited.[3] In that case, the Bank of New Zealand requested of the chairman of the Equiticorp companies that cash reserves be applied to the discharge of a debt owed to the Bank. It was found that the Bank was asserting commercial pressure, but this pressure did not amount to economic duress.

Kirby P (in dissent) was critical of the inherent vagueness of economic duress. His Honour stated that there needed to be more clarity as to what conduct amounts to economic duress (and is not allowed) and what conduct does not.[4]

Statutory relief

While the law in this area is developing, there remains some relief in statute. For example, the Australian Consumer Law prohibits conduct that is “unconscionable”, a concept which can bear many similarities to economic duress. Through this, conduct may not necessarily be unlawful, but may amount to that which ought not to be permitted in commercial dealings.

Since the introduction of the Australian Consumer Law in 2010, there have been various authorities dealing with the question of unconscionable conduct. This begs the question, is it necessary to have both this and “economic duress”? Considering the uncertain nature of economic duress, it seems that relying on statutory protection would be an easier course. Indeed, the NSW Court of Appeal came to a similar conclusion in Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd v Karam.[5]

The main point from all of this is that the law of economic duress is continuing to develop, both through the courts and through legislation. Is there a place for both a common law doctrine of economic duress and statutory prohibitions against unconscionable conduct? The hope is that Kennedy v Thorne will shed some light and provide guidance on the issue; however, until the matter of “economic duress” is resolved, the statutory measures offered by the Australian Consumer Law should be followed at the minimum.