The decision made on 13 January 1999 deals with an unusual application of coercion upon conclusion of the contract in respect of relationships between leaders and followers of a sect, a situation in which psychological pressure and other influences are often seen as modifying free will.
In this case a woman, having been a member of a sect community for 15 years, had sold her own house during this period to a company, the associates and manager of which belonged to the same sect. After having left the community, she asked for nullity of the sale on grounds of moral coercion. The Paris Court of Appeal ruled in her favour, noting that this former follower had indeed suffered from physical and moral coercion on the part of the other community members from 1972 until her departure in November 1987, a period in which she was particularly vulnerable, as she lived separated from her husband and in care of her children. The judges made it clear that it was this type of coercion that had led her to conclude the sale of her house, so that the members of the community could live there. The Cour de Cassation dismissed the appeal against this decision. This outcome seems to encourage the use of such a mode of recession, as it has proved rather easy to establish coercion in concluding the contract.
Although the existence of moral coercion was not really contested in this case, the plaintiff before the Cour de Cassation, on one hand, criticized the appeal judges for having based their decision on sporadic and vague acts that were separated in time or that were characterized as having taken place after the sale, without establishing a direct temporal link between the noticed behaviours and the conclusion of the contract. However, in reply to this criticism, the Cour de Cassation held that the Court of Appeal could indeed base its decision on elements of assessment that happened after the date of the conclusion of the contract. Thus, this decision freely admits the proof of coercion based on repeated acts, even from such posterior to the contract, if they make it possible to assess the reality of the fear at the time of the conclusion of the contract.
On the other hand, the Cour de Cassation dismissed the argument of the plaintiff, who criticized the judges for not having firmly enough established the crucial role of coercion. It is solely a matter for the Court of first instance to render a subjective assessment of the gravity of fear, taking into account the psychological state of the victim, and to consider its crucial influence on the conclusion of the contract.
This particular application of the defect of coercion for sect matters has found a certain resonance in a law of 12 June 2001, which added section 223-15-2 to the Penal Code. From now on, this law punishes the fraudulent abuse of the situation of weakness of a person under psychological or physical coercion, resulting from serious or repeated pressure or from techniques bound to alter his or her judgement, leading to an act or an omission, which is seriously detrimental to this person.European Review of Private Law