Prima Facie

The Latin term prima facie means “at first glance,” or “at first appearance,” and it is generally used to describe how a situation appears on initial observation. In the legal system, prima facie is commonly used to refer to either a piece of evidence which is presumed to be true when first viewed, or a legal claim in which enough evidence is presented to support the validity of the claim. To explore this concept, consider the following prima facie definition.

Definition of Prima Facie


prī-muh- fey-shuh


  1. At first appearance, before investigation


  1. Self-evident, plain or clear, obvious


First Century    Latin

History of the Term Prima Facie

This Latin term literally translates as “at first face,” or “at first appearance.” Modern English tends to use the term to mean “on the face of it,” in conversational English, academic philosophy, and the law. Prima facie implies that evidence exists which, unless disproven, is sufficient to prove a certain fact or circumstance.

Example of use in academic philosophy:

Anthropologists agreed that a relationship exists between race and culture. Therefore, cultural diversity within a given geographical area may be seen as prima facie evidence that the inhabitants were racially diverse.

Use of Prima Facie in the Legal System

In the U.S. legal system, there must be a prima facie case in order to commence legal proceedings, meaning that there must be enough evidence at first glance to assume that the plaintiff has a valid legal claim. This does not mean there must be sufficient evidence to prove the claim when filing, as determining the presence and truth of such evidence is the purpose of the trial system.

Prima Facie in a Civil Lawsuit

When someone files a civil lawsuit, he must present facts or circumstances which tend to support each element of his claim. If he fails to do so, he runs the risk of having the case dismissed, or receiving an adverse directed verdict. This means that the defendant may ask the judge to order a summary judgment or directed verdict because there is no valid legal claim. This may be done before the defendant even has to present evidence to disprove the plaintiff’s claim, as the burden of proving the case rests on the shoulders of the plaintiff.

Prima Facie in a Criminal Case

Before an individual can be tried on criminal charges, a preliminary hearing must be held so that the court can determine whether there is sufficient cause to continue to trial. During this prima facie stage of the legal process, it is only necessary to present some credible evidence of each element of the case. By contrast, successfully prosecuting the defendant during trial requires that he is guilty of each element of the crime be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

When an individual is being tried on criminal charges, the prosecutor has the burden of presenting a prima facie case, proving each and every element of the crime.

For example:

Angelo has been charged with burglary of Stephanie’s home. At trial, the prosecutor must present evidence that Angelo entered into the home without authorization, which is just one element of the crime of burglary. The prosecutor presents testimony that Angelo and Stephanie had an argument at work, during which Angelo flung some vague threats. A few weeks following the burglary, Angelo was found to possess one of the items stolen from Stephanie’s home.

While Angelo having possession of an item belonging to Stephanie is suspicious, and may be evidence of some other crime, such as possession of stolen property, it is not in itself evidence of a burglary. There were no witnesses, and no evidence that Angelo was ever in Stephanie’s home. The defendant could request the charge of burglary be dismissed, or that the judge order a directed verdict, based on the prosecution’s failure to present a prima facie case for burglary, without ever having to present any evidence of his own.

If, on the other hand, the prosecution presents any evidence that Angelo had been in Stephanie’s home, such as a fingerprint, or an eyewitness account, the requirement of presenting a prima facie case has been met. This does not necessarily prove definitively that Angelo is guilty, but the defendant would need to present evidence that either disproves, or causes doubt about, Angelo’s guilt.

Evidence Accepted as Prima Facie

Evidence that may be accepted as prima facie is any evidence which, if accepted at face value, supports the case, or a necessary element of the case.

For example:

Natalie and her husband, Mike, have a violent argument in which she accuses him of cheating on her. The fight spills out the front door onto the lawn, where a neighbor video records it with his smartphone. While Mike got into his car and drove away after a few minutes, he was discovered dead in the couple’s home a week later. The medical examiner determined that Mike’s death had been caused by poison, and Natalie was subsequently arrested and charged with first degree murder.

In order to gain a verdict of first degree murder, as opposed to other types of murder, there must have been intent to commit murder. During the trial, the prosecutor presents the neighbor’s video recording on which Natalie can clearly be seen and heard threatening to kill Mike. This alone is not proof that Natalie killed Mike, but it does serve to prove her intent. If the prosecution is successful in proving the other elements of murder, the video recording may serve as prima facie evidence that Natalie intended to kill her husband.

The laws in each jurisdiction also define certain other types of evidence that may be taken at face value, or which are considered as prima facie evidence in some cases. For example, an official copy of a defendant’s criminal record may serve as prima facie evidence of his character as a habitual criminal. In a civil case, a certified copy of a real property deed may serve as prima facie evidence of a party’s ownership of the property.

Consideration of Prima Facie Evidence

When a court accepts prima facie evidence, it becomes the responsibility of the opposing party to disprove that evidence if he does not want it taken at face value. In the event a party presents sufficient evidence to refute such prima facie evidence, the judge or jury may still consider the prima facie evidence, but it must be considered with, and weighed against, all other evidence.

For example:

In most cases, proof than an individual mailed a letter is considered prima facie evidence that the letter was delivered to the person to whom it was addressed. If the individual to whom the letter was addressed wants to refute that fact, claiming that he never received the letter, he must present some proof or convincing argument.

Prima Facie vs. Res Ipsa Loquitur

The term prima facie is sometimes confused with the term res ipsa loquitur, which means “the thing speaks for itself.” Res ipsa loquitur may be used to refer to a situation in which the facts make it self-evident that the negligence, liability, or responsibility for damages lies with a party, based on the very nature of the accident or injury.

The difference between these two terms is that prima facie means there is enough evidence to file or pursue a case. Res ipsa loquitur means that the facts are so obvious that there is no need for further explanation.

For example:

Edward leaves his rented home for a few days, but forgets to turn off the hose filling his pool. The water flows over, taking out part of the landscaping on its way to the street. The landlord has filed a civil lawsuit seeking reimbursement for repairs to the landscape, as well as for the fine imposed by the city.

In this case, res ipsa loquitur means that it is obvious the damages were caused by the defendant’s negligent act. The home was placed in his care as a result of the lease, and his negligence caused the damages. There is no need for the landlord to otherwise prove liability, only the amount of damages.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Directed Verdict – An order for a jury to return a specific verdict because there is no legally sufficient evidence to support a different conclusion.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Prosecutor – A person, especially a public official, who institutes legal proceedings against someone.
  • Summary Judgment – A final decision on the case, handed down by the judge on the basis of the statements and evidence presented, without a full trial.