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   Case summaries      DPP for Northern Ireland v Lynch

DPP for Northern Ireland v Lynch [1975] AC 653 House of Lords

The appellant was ordered by Meehan, a member of the IRA, to drive a car. The appellant did not know Meehan personally but knew of his reputation. He knew that he would be shot if he did not comply. Three armed men in combats and balaclavas got into the car and the appellant drove them as directed. The three men then shot and killed a policeman. The appellant was convicted of murder, the trial judge having ruled that the defence of duress was not available in the circumstances. The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal and the defendant appealed to the House of Lords.


Appeal allowed (Lord Simon and Lord Kilbrandon dissenting). The defence of duress is available to a participant to murder who does not personally do the act of killing.

Lord Morris:

“The law must, I think, take a common sense view. If someone is forced at gun-point either to be inactive or to do something positive - must the law not remember that the instinct and perhaps the duty of self-preservation is powerful and natural? I think it must. A man who is attacked is allowed within reason to take necessary steps to defend himself. The law would be censorious and inhumane which did not recognise the appalling plight of a person who perhaps suddenly finds his life in jeopardy unless he submits and obeys.”

“Though it is not possible for the law always to be worked out on coldly logical lines there may be manifest factual differences and contrasts between the situation of an aider and abettor to a killing and that of the actual killer. Let two situations be supposed. In each let it be supposed that there is a real and effective threat of death. In one a person is required under such duress to drive a car to a place or to carry a gun to a place with knowledge that at such place it is planned that X is to be killed by those who are imposing their will. In the other situation let it be supposed that a person under such duress is told that he himself must there and then kill X. In either situation there is a terrible agonising choice of evils. In the former to save his life the person drives the car, or carries the gun. He may cling to the hope that perhaps X will not be found at the place or that there will be a change of intention before the purpose is carried out, or that in some unforeseen way the dire event of a killing will be averted. The final and fatal moment of decision has not arrived. He saves his own life at a time when the loss of another life is not a certainty. In the second (if indeed it is a situation likely to arise) the person is told that to save his life he himself must personally there and then take an innocent life. It is for him to pull the trigger or otherwise personally to do the act of killing. There, I think, before allowing duress as a defence it may be that the law will have to call a halt.”
Back to lecture outline on the defence of duress in criminal law