In criminal law, duress is a defense to a crime if the defendant was compelled or coerced to commit the crime by some human agency, prior to a safe avenue of escape being available, under a threat of serious imminent harm to the defendant or others, and the crime is of a lesser magnitude than the harm threatened. Duress consists of threatening conduct which produced the following three elements in the accused:
- a reasonable fear;
- the fear must be of an immediate [imminent] harm; and,
- that harm must be death or serious bodily harm).
Duress is a also a defense asserted against enforcement of a contract. It is an illegal actual or a threatened violence or restraint of someone, to compel him to enter into a contract, or to excuse performance of a contract. A legal constraint, or the threats only of doing that which the party using them had a right to do, does not invalidate the contract.
Duress is usually asserted in a defendant's answer to a complaint seeking to enforce a contract. It may also be a reason for a person to seek a declaratory judgment to declare a contract void or unenforceable. Many states have enacted laws, which vary by state, allowing a buyer to cancel certain types of consumer contracts, such as those solicited at their home, within a certain number of days after signing. These laws are typically motivated by concerns over high-pressure sales tactics which fall short of duress, but usually allow cancellation for any reason if the cancellation is made within the guidelines of the law.