Friday, March 18, 2005

Duress of circumstances?

In view of R v Hasan [2005] UKHL 22 (17 March 2005) we may doubt whether there is any room for the common law development of a defence of "duress of circumstances" as a defence separate from coercion (s 24 Crimes Act 1961[NZ]).

Lord Bingham, delivering the leading opinion on the issue of duress – the common law version of coercion – observed that duress is akin to the defence of necessity, which applies to threats which are not of human origin but rather consist in the force of extraneous circumstances (para 19). Given that non-human perils are in the domain of necessity (a common law defence in New Zealand), and threats by humans are in the domain of duress (a common law defence in the UK), duress is only a common law defence in New Zealand if it is not covered by the statutory defence of compulsion. Is, therefore, the common law defence of duress wider than the statutory defence of compulsion?

Hasan suggests that it is not. Lord Bingham tightened the criteria for the operation of duress (para 22, for reasons he set out in paras 18 – 20), and indicated that circumstances falling short of being a defence might appropriately be considered as mitigating sentence.

The issues on duress in Hasan were decided by holding that the defence is not available if there was a reasonable (not merely a subjective) risk of exposure to threats, and that such threats were not limited to those directed at the commission of the type of crime that was actually committed. A reasonably appreciable risk of being exposed to threats directed at the commission of an offence, as a result of the defendant’s having associated with the person who makes the threat, would thus make the defence unavailable. The other narrow limits to the defence of duress were set out in para 21. The position of undercover officers was deliberately left for future determination, and Lady Hale would have made some allowance for defendants in battered spouse relationships.

In Kapi v MOT (1991) 8 CRNZ 49 (CA), at 57, the Court said, of the possible defence which it referred to as "necessity":

"We consider on the authorities cited to us that a defence of necessity, if available in New Zealand, requires at least a belief formed on reasonable grounds of imminent peril of death or serious injury. Breach of the law then is excused only where there is no realistic choice but to act in that way. Even then the response can be excused only where it is proportionate to the peril."

To the extent that the threats in Kapi were of human origin, the Court should be taken to be referring to the mooted common law defence of duress of circumstances, as necessity is limited to non-human threats. But further, if the common law defence (called duress, but, as is implicit in Hasan, synonymously duress of circumstances) is as constrained as indicated in Hasan, then the relevant defence in Kapi was the statutory defence of coercion.

In Police v Kawiti [2000] 1 NZLR 117; (1999) 17 CRNZ 88, Salmon J, the defence is properly called necessity, not duress of circumstances.

The statutory elements of coercion can, on facts which substantiate lack of moral fault, be interpreted liberally. In R v Jones [2004] EWCA Crim 1981, at para 51, it was pointed out that the requirement of immediacy of threatened serious harm would not be so restrictive so as to exclude, for example, harm that was inevitable albeit not immediate.

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