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necessity

Pressure of circumstances compelling one to commit an illegal act. The extent to which English law accepts a defence of necessity to a criminal charge is unclear (compare *duress; *self-defence). There have, however, been acquittals on this basis when (1) a prisoner escaped from a burning gaol; and (2) the crew of a ship jettisoned the cargo (not belonging to them) to save the ship from sinking. It has also been suggested that a surgeon may have a defence of necessity if he operates without an unconscious patientís consent. Necessity is not, however, a defence to charges of theft or murder (e.g. when ship-wrecked victims kill and eat one of their number) and it is not usually a defence to driving offences. The definitions of some statutory offences incorporate such expressions as 'unlawfully' or 'without lawful authority or excuse' and so should admit necessity defences. Other statutory provisions (1) authorize police and fire officers, if necessary, to break into premises when a fire has broken out and do everything necessary to extinguish it; and (2) provide qualified exemption from compliance with traffic lights for fire engines, ambulances, and police vehicles.

Necessity is in some circumstances a defence to an action in tort, but it is probably limited to action taken in an emergency to protect life or property. The steps taken in the emergency must be reasonable.

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