Defence of Duress

The defence of duress involves a serious threat to an accused or their family, often involving the immediate death or serious injury of the accused or their family, but which can include the threat of future harm and of threats or violence to others. This defence is rarely raised in a criminal trial.

An accused person is to be acquitted of a criminal offence if the Court accepts that he or she acted under duress.


Section 40 of the Criminal Code 2002 provides that a person is not criminally responsible for an offence if the person carries out the conduct required for the offence under duress.

A person carries out conduct under duress only if the person reasonably believes that:

  • a threat has been made that will be carried out unless an offence is committed; and
  • there is no reasonable way to make the threat ineffective; and
  • the conduct is a reasonable response to the threat.

However, the person does not carry out conduct under duress if the threat is made by or on behalf of a person with whom the person is voluntarily associating to carry out conduct of the kind required for the offence.

The Onus of Proof of A Defence of Duress

The accused bears an evidentiary onus. That is, he or she needs to call evidence that raises the defence. Once the accused discharges that evidentiary onus, the Prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused acted voluntarily and in order to do so must eliminate any reasonable possibility that he or she acted under duress.

Case law

R v Abusafiah (1991) 24 NSWLR 531, in which Justice Hunt, delivering the leading judgment, said, “In duress, the relevant act is done only because the accused has lost his free choice to refrain from doing the act, in that he did the act because he feared that the consequences of the threat were greater than those flowing from the crime he commits … Duress is a complete defence leading to an acquittal.”

Other Principles

The Court stated that the Prosecution must establish one or the other of two things. It does not have to establish both of them. The first is that, when the accused did those acts, there is no reasonable possibility that he did so by reason of a threat that death or really serious physical harm would be inflicted upon him or upon his family if he did not do those acts.

If the Prosecution has failed to eliminate that particular reasonable possibility, it must establish in relation to any such threat which may reasonably have been made that there is no reasonable possibility that such was its gravity that a person of ordinary firmness of mind and will, and of the same sex and maturity as the accused, would have yielded to that threat in the way in which the accused did.

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