Lloyd's Maritime and Commercial Law Quarterly


Liron Shmilovits*

Lawful act duress is a fraught doctrine because it condemns lawful behaviour. It may invalidate the legal consequences of lawful behaviour, namely a contract. This article poses the question: how do we distinguish between lawful actions that do—and do not—amount to duress? In answer to this question, it is argued that the current definition of illegitimate pressure, propounded by the Supreme Court in Times Travel (UK) Ltd v Pakistan International Airlines Corp, is question-begging. It would be better to define illegitimate pressure as a threat that does not correspond to the type of the transaction. This definition is relatively easy to apply and explains the case law. It would place lawful act duress on a sound footing.


This article is about the exotic creature known as lawful act duress. Like all forms of duress, lawful act duress renders voidable a contract induced by illegitimate pressure. What is special about lawful act duress is that here the illegitimate pressure is lawful in itself.
Lawful act duress seems a contradiction in terms. How can it be wrong to procure a contract by a lawful act? How does a lawful act vitiate a contract? Is it really possible for a party to resile from a contract on the ground that the other party acted lawfully? In English law, it can, it does and it is.
True, it seldom happens; but, when the stars align, certain acts that are lawful in themselves, when coupled with certain lawful demands, amount to duress. So says the Supreme Court, unambiguously and unanimously, in Times Travel (UK) Ltd v Pakistan International Airlines Corp.1
Not only that, but we are enjoined to discount legality in assessing the pressure: “the critical enquiry is not whether the conduct is lawful but whether it is morally or socially unacceptable”.2 Similarly, we are told, “the focus is on the nature and justification of the demand rather than the legality of the threat”.3

Shades of legality


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