No gun to the head

Photo by Max Kleinen on Unsplash

A contract will seldom be formed as a result of actual violence but threats of violence are more probable. Violence or the threat of violence must be of such a nature that they are enough to overwhelm a mind of ordinary firmness. Colloquially, one might say that there should be no literal gun placed to the head of another person in order to get them to enter a contract. Force and fear will have the effect of making the putative contract void. Threats to take legitimate legal action against someone do not fall into the category of force and fear.

I was reminded of this area of contract law today when reading a report of the activities of the Sicilian Mafia which is responsible for a €10 million agricultural fraud involving European Union subsidies. The Mafia has become particularly adept at creaming off these subsidies over many decades.

One of the features of the most recent fraud to be exposed is the time honoured Mafia practices of extortion and intimidation: law abiding Sicilian landowners are pressurised to sell their land to criminal enterprises which then go on to ‘milk’ the seemingly bottomless pit of EU subsidies. In the parlance of The Godfather, these law abiding citizens are made an offer they can’t refuse and, in the absence of effective law enforcement combined with the traditional weakness of the Italian State, what else are they supposed to do? It would take an extremely brave person (perhaps foolhardy) to stand up to such threats.

A link to the story about the activities of the Sicilian Mafia as reported in The Independent can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.160120/data/9285206/index.html

When introducing students to the law of contract, one of the first Scottish cases that I discuss with them is several hundred years old – Earl of Orkney v Vinfra (1606) Mor 16481.

It tends to stick in their minds – possibly – because of its particularly lurid details. I often say to the students that the story reads like something from either The Godfather Trilogy or The Sopranos TV series.

Andrew Vinfra was summoned to the Earl’s castle. He was presented with a deed (a formal document) by the Earl, the feudal overlord of the Islands, and he was ordered to sign it. The document was an agreement that Vinfra was to pay the Earl the sum of 2,000 Merks. Vinfra had no intention of agreeing to this proposition, whereupon the Earl started to curse and swear at him. The Earl then bluntly declared to Vinfra that he would drive his whinger (dagger or dirk) into Vinfra’s skull. The terrified Vinfra’s resolve completely crumbled at this point and he signed the document. He was wise to do so: the Earl had a notorious reputation for thuggery and violence. Murder was well within his capabilities.

Later, when at a safe distance from the Earl, Vinfra took steps to have the contract declared void on the grounds that he had signed the document because the Earl had used force and fear. The Earl attempted to pass off the incident as high jinks, but Vinfra was able to prove that his fear of being murdered was genuine. The court declared that the agreement was void: it had not been entered into voluntarily by Vinfra. It could not be enforced by the Earl against Vinfra. It was treated as if it had never existed.

The students, of course, love the drama of Vinfra’s ordeal and they naively scoff that this situation wouldn’t happen today …

My riposte to that attitude is to remind them that there are places not too far from Scotland where organised crime is a feature of daily life. The latest report of events from Sicily tends to bear this out.

Further reading about the Italian Mafia organisations and its ‘business’ activities can be found below:

  • Mafia Business: The Mafia Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Pino Arlacchi (1986: Verso Books)
  • Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia by John Dickie (Hodder: 2007)
  • Mafia Republic: Italy’s Criminal Curse. Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra from 1946 to the Present by John Dickie (Sceptre: 2014)
  • The Sicilian Mafia: the Business of Private Protection by Diego Gambetta (Harvard University Press: 1996)
  • Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia by Roberto Saviano (Picador Classic: 2012)

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 17 January 2020