Universe Tankships Inc of Monrovia v International Transport Workers Federation: HL 1 Apr 1981

A ship belonging to the appellants had been blacked by the defendant union. Negotiations to clear the threat resulted in payment by the appellants to a welfare fund of the defendant. The company sought its refund saying that it had been paid under duress. The Court of Appeal had found it to be a payment as part of an industrial dispute within the 1974 Act. The company appealed.
Held: The appeal succeeded (Scarman and Brandon LL dissenting). The payment demanded had not been connected with the ‘terms and conditions’ of the company’s employees’ contracts, and so the demand could not be protected as part of a trade dispute.
Two elements had to be shown to establish the tort of duress. The first was a pressure sufficient to overbear the will, and the second was that the pressure must in some way be illegitimate. Lord Cross of Chelsea cautioned against taking Lord Denning’s observations in BBC too far: ‘A trade union cannot turn a dispute which in reality has no connection with terms and conditions of employment into a dispute connected with terms and conditions of employment by insisting that the employer inserts appropriate terms into the contracts of employment into which he enters.’
Duress, whatever form it takes, must amount to a coercion of the will so as to vitiate consent; in a contractual situation commercial pressure is not enough. Lord Diplock said: ‘The rationale is that his apparent consent was induced by pressure exercised upon him by that other party which the law does not regard as legitimate, with the consequence that the consent is treated in law as revocable unless approbated either expressly or by implication after the illegitimate pressure has ceased to operate on his mind. It is a rationale similar to that which underlies the avoidability of contracts entered into and the recovery of money exacted under colour of office, or under undue influence or in consequence of threats of physical duress.’
Lord Scarman referred to Barton v Armstrong and Pao On and said: ‘The authorities on which these two cases were based reveal two elements in the wrong of duress: (1) pressure amounting to compulsion of the will of the victim; and (2) the illegitimacy of the pressure exerted. There must be pressure, the practical effect of which is compulsion or the absence of choice. Compulsion is variously described in the authorities as coercion or the vitiation of consent. The classic case of duress is, however, not the lack of will to submit but the victim’s intentional submission arising from the realisation that there is no other practical choice open to him.’

Scarman, Cross of Chelsea, Diplock LL
[1983] 1 AC 366, [1981] UKHL 9, [1982] 2 WLR 803, [1982] 2 All ER 67, [1982] 1 Lloyds Rep 537, [1982] IRLR 200, [1982] ICR 262
Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 13(1) 29(1)
England and Wales
CommentaryBritish Broadcasting Corporation v Hearn CA 1977
Union members working for the BBC threatened to refuse to transmit its television signal to a satellite over the Indian Ocean during the Cup Final because the satellite broadcast would be receivable in South Africa. The refusal followed a union . .
CitedBarton v Armstrong 1969
(Supreme Court of New South Wales) The claimant sought damages alleging assault by the making of telephone calls.
Held: Threats made over the telephone were capable of amounting to an assault. Taylor J: ‘Mr. Staff’s first and second . .
CitedPao On and Others v Lau Yiu Long and Others PC 9-Apr-1979
(Hong Kong) The board was asked whether a contract of guarantee had been obtained by duress.
Held: Lord Scarman said: ‘Duress, whatever form it takes, is a coercion of the will so as to vitiate consent. Their Lordships agree with the . .

Cited by:
CitedR v Her Majesty’s Attorney-General for England and Wales PC 17-Mar-2003
PC (From Court of Appeal of New Zealand) T had been a member of the British SAS. Other members had written books and the Army sought to impose confidentiality contracts or to impose a return to their unit. R . .
CitedIn re P (a minor by his mother and litigation friend); P v National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers HL 27-Feb-2003
The pupil had been excluded from school but then ordered to be re-instated. The teachers, through their union, refused to teach him claiming that he was disruptive. The claimant appealed a refusal of an injunction. The injunction had been refused on . .
CitedJones v Morgan CA 28-Jun-2001
The claimant appealed against an order refusing him enforcement an agreement for the purchase of a one half share in a property. The judge had found the agreement to be unconscionable.
Held: The appeal was dismissed. The judge had wrongly . .
CitedCTN Cash and Carry v Gallaher CA 15-Feb-1993
The buyer paid a sum demanded by the seller who threatened otherwise to withdraw the credit facilities it provided to the buyer. The sum was not in fact due, but the demand had been made honestly. The buyer said the agreement was voidable for . .
CitedProgress Bulk Carriers Ltd v Tube City IMS Llc ComC 17-Feb-2012
The claimant sought to set aside an arbitration saying that the arbitrator had misapplied the test for economic duress. . .
CitedDSND Subsea Ltd v Petroleum Geo Services Asa TCC 28-Jul-2000
Dyson J set out the principles applicable in establishing a pleading of commercial duress:
(i) Economic pressure can amount to duress, provided it may be characterised as illegitimate and has constituted a ‘but for’ cause inducing the claimant . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Torts – Other, Contract, Employment

Leading Case

Updated: 10 November 2021; Ref: scu.220488