Canada Offers “Duress” Defense for Battered Women

Nicole Ryan had endured more than 15 horrific years of domestic abuse when, in 2008, she plotted to have her husband killed. Unbeknownst to her, the hired “hit man” was an undercover police officer who quickly had Ryan charged with “counseling to commit murder”.

But last week, Ryan was acquitted in a Nova Scotia provincial court under the defense of duress–a new plea for abused women in Canada. The decision represents a beacon of hope for traumatized women who lash out under extreme violence.

The defense of duress provides a new standard against which to judge the so-called “criminal” actions of battered women. Previously, only women facing imminent threats of violence or death had a hope of pleading self-defense in Canadian courts. The same is true in the United States, where women must be able to prove their safety was immediately threatened by an abusive spouse in order to successfully argue self-defense. In light of Ryan’s case, Canadian judges can now account for rash, out-of-character actions taken against violent spouses by abused women who are “living in a state of terror.”

Said Chief Justice Michael MacDonald:

The rationale for the defense of duress is quite different. It involves excusing a wrongdoing in circumstances where the accused is left with no other alternative. Therefore, unlike self-defense, it is not the type of action society would support, let alone applaud.

From the time Nicole Ryan and her husband married in 1992, it was clear that Michael Ryan’s temper was out of control. He frequently pummeled his wife with his fists and threatened her with guns.

She was separated from her husband at the time she was arrested in 2008, but, she testified, her husband “was sexually assaulting her weekly, threatening her life and specifying where he would bury her.”

Given the circumstances, the court ruled, her actions were a result of normal human instincts of self-preservation.

The Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has raised the bar for courts all over the world in adjudicating cases involving battered women who have sought to defend themselves against their attackers. Elizabeth Sheehy, a Canadian legal scholar, called the decision a “legal breakthrough.” She told The Globe and Mail,

This was a planned and deliberate murder because she had no other way out. It was her life and her child’s life versus his.

Lenore Walker, the foremost advocate for battered women and battered woman’s syndrome in the U.S., has argued that women like Ryan may turn to murder in self-defense as a result of “learned helplessness.” Walker argues that women in such violent relationships come to believe that any attempt to resist their batterers is doomed to failure. This is compounded by the batterer’s repeated threats to kill the woman if she leaves, and his insistence that she has no escape. Moreover, as in Ryan’s case, battered women’s actions are often taken in an effort to protect the lives of their children.

For abused women in the U.S. who find themselves before the court as Ryan did, the plea of self-defense will rarely succeed unless the woman kills her abuser while he’s abusing her—and even then the defense is not without risk. As in Canada, the defense is frequently rejected, and battered women who may not otherwise pose a threat to society can find themselves behind bars. The defense of duress may very well change that.


  1. I'm glad to see that you are giving attention to this case because it does indeed vindicate the rights of abused women. However, your description is a little bit inaccurate.

    The foundation for the defence that was successfully raised by Ms. Ryan in this case has been law in Canada since a 1990 Supreme Court of Canada decision (R v Lavallee –…. In that case, "battered woman syndrome" was raised to support a claim of self-defence to show why a woman might strike back at her abuser even though, at that moment, she was not in "immediate danger." The reason that Ms. Ryan's case is important is that it expands the applicability of evidence of battered woman syndrome to the defence of duress, in addition to its existing application in relation to the defence of self-defence.

    From your description, it's not entirely clear that these are two separate defences, although they are related, and arguably somewhat overlapping. What's interesting is that self-defence is generally thought of as a justification, as opposed to an excuse. Where someone's life is in danger and they strike back at their attacker, society sees this as justified. On the other hand, duress is seen as an excuse. Where a person is forced to do something, at gun point for example, that person still technically has a choice. He or she could sacrifice themselves instead of committing the act that they are being forced to do. Thus, law and society's view of duress is less sympathetic than it's view of self-defence. That's what the judge was getting at in the quote you provided.

    What it all boils down to is that the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal has recognized that Ms. Ryan was forced to act the way she did because of the abuse that was repeatedly inflicted upon her over a long period of time, which is similar to what has already been recognized in Canadian law for over 20 years. The court has simply acknowledged the validity of precedent and broadened its applicability.

  2. Elizabeth Sheehy says:

    BWS evidence has been used to support duress in other cases involving battered women in Canada, but the Nicole Doucet (Ryan) case expands duress in other ways, as I explain below in my op ed in the Winnipeg Free Press –

  3. Ayesha Mamtaz says:

    How to escape from the husband who persecuted contineously and get shelter in a country like canada .

    Solicit expert suggestion, Thanks

  4. Feminist Metalhead says:

    For once I am proud to be a born and raised Nova Scotian.

    My ancestors have lived here for so many centuries… I am of Acadian and Dutch descent and sometimes I wonder why my family didn’t leave a long time ago.

  5. As a battered woman for 21 years, When my ex tried to kill me with knife, I divorced him. Because I never reported the abuse to anyone, in the court he got majarity of the assets and made me to pay for the expenses. He depleted our money and hired a top lawyer to defend him. I had no money to defend myself and I lost.

    I am glad that I don’t live with his abuse and getting beat up on the regular basis. As a Canadian woman I am glad that the Canadian Court is realizing that the battered women in canada have a right to defend themeselves. A court who is made of all men… and the rules are made to protect the men…

  6. Shannon says:

    My name is Shannon, I am the spouse of Michael Ryan. Michael and I have been together for five years and prior to the hitman. We have a son together, and he is an EXCELLENT father and a wonderful man. Mike and his daughter have a very loving relationship. It makes me sick to read the lies, especially those involving her. Mike and Nicole had an amicable relationship, up until it came time to “divide the assets”. The only person Nicole has ever been abused by was her father, and for that I feel bad for her. Mike tried a number of times (I was there) to reason with Nicole. Mike’s only concern was that they “not put their daughter in the middle of the fighting”. During Nicole’s trials in NS Mike and I sat outside the court for an entire week. HE WAS NEVER CALLED TO TESTIFY. Mike has never had the opportunity to answer to Nicole’s allegations. I URGE YOU to read the the comments and discussion on the “Wandering Mind” Blog at In closing, I thank those that are able to see this for what it really is, and I will attempt to shed some light on the negative things being said about Mike and tell him that I love him very much and I love our family. I’ m sorry that you have to go through this. It is unfortunate that others don’t know you as the funny, loving and hard working man that you are. Thank you for being you, even through all of this. You are my very best friend.

  7. Nobody is qualified to make a decision on this case without at least hearing Mr Ryan’s account of the allegations and marriage. Not even the Judges hearing this case should make a decision based on a person’s testimony, after they were investigated and it was known they were trying to have someone killed. The fact is, and it is common knowledge that people lie to get out of hot water.
    The crown in this case had the accused video taped and recorded hiring a hitman. She plead guilty to these facts, for obvious reasons and played the BWS card. Let’s see where we would be right now if the RCMP and Mr Ryan testified.
    Everything should be heard in cases like this, that’s why its at the Supreme Court of Canada level now. Would never have made it this far if the trial judge requested to hear Mr Ryan’s version of the story. He was subpoened for the trial, but was not called by either side, NEW TRIAL !!

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