Prima facie

[prahy-muh fey-shee-ee, fey-shee, fey-shuh, pree-]

Prima facie is a Latin expression meaning "on its first appearance", or "by first instance". It is used in modern legal English to signify that on first examination, a matter appears to be self-evident from the facts. In common law jurisdictions, prima facie denotes evidence that (unless rebutted) would be sufficient to prove a particular proposition or fact.

Most legal proceedings require a prima facie case to exist, following which proceedings may then commence to test it, and create a ruling.

Prima facie and burden of proof

In most legal proceedings, one of the parties has the burden of proof, which requires that party to present prima facie evidence of all facts essential to its case. If that party fails to present prima facie evidence on any required element of its case, its claim may be dismissed without any response by the opposing party. A prima facie case may be insufficient to enable a party to prevail if the opposing party introduces contradictory evidence or asserts an affirmative defense. Sometimes the introduction of prima facie evidence is informally called making a case or building a case.

For example, in a criminal prosecution, the prosecution has the burden of presenting prima facie evidence of each element of the crime charged. In a murder case, this would include evidence that the defendant's act caused the victim's death, and evidence that the defendant acted with malice aforethought. If the prosecution were to fail to introduce such evidence, then its case would fail on grounds of "failure to make out a prima facie case," even without rebuttal by the defendant. This evidence need not be conclusive or irrefutable, and evidence rebutting the case may not be considered.

Prima facie and res ipsa loquitur

Prima facie is often confused with res ipsa loquitur ("the thing speaks for itself"), the common law legal doctrine that when the facts suggest that negligence or responsibility for some matter is self-evident, it is not necessary for a plaintiff to provide extraneous details, since "the thing speaks for itself".

The difference between the two is that prima facie is a term meaning the matter seems obvious and self-explanatory. Res ipsa loquitur is the legal argument that because it is so obvious, the plaintiff can stop their explanation there and does not have to provide any further in-depth details to prove liability, because it "speaks for itself". Example:

"There is a prima facie case that the defendant is liable. They controlled the pump. The pump was left on and flooded the plaintiff's house. The plaintiff was away and had left the house in the control of the defendant. Res ipsa loquitur.

Other uses and references

The phrase prima facie is sometimes misspelled in the mistaken belief that is the actual Latin word; however, the word is in fact faciēs (fifth declension), of which faciē is the ablative.

The phrase is very commonly used, in exactly the same sense, in academic philosophy as well. Among the most notable uses of it in that discipline is the theory of ethics first proposed by W. D. Ross, often called the Ethic of Prima Facie Duties, as well as in epistemology, as used, e.g. by Robert Audi. It is generally used in reference to an obligation. "I have a prima facie obligation to keep my promise and meet my friend" means that I am under an obligation but this may yield to a more pressing duty. A more modern usage prefers the title ‘pro tanto obligation’: an obligation inasmuch as there is this or that aspect of the situation, but again suspending the all-in verdict.

See also


  • Herlitz. (1994). The meaning of the term "prima facie" 55 La.L.Rev. 391
  • Audi, Robert (2003). Epistemology, a contemporary introduction, second edition, Routledge, p. 27

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