- Prima facie
Prima facie ( /ˈpraɪmə ˈfeɪʃɨ.iː/; from Latin: prīmā faciē) is a Latin expression meaning on its first encounter, first blush, or at first sight. The literal translation would be "at first face", from the feminine form of primus ("first") and facies ("face"), both in the ablative case. 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. The term is used similarly in academic philosophy.
Most legal proceedings require a prima facie case to exist, following which proceedings may then commence to test it, and create a ruling.
Burden of ProofMain article: Legal burden of proof
In most legal proceedings, one party has a burden of proof, which requires it to present prima facie evidence for all of the essential facts in its case. If they cannot, its claim may be dismissed without any need for a response by other parties. A prima facie case might not stand or fall on its own; if an opposing party introduces other evidence or asserts an affirmative defense it can only be reconciled with a full trial. Sometimes the introduction of prima facie evidence is informally called making a case or building a case.
For example, in a trial under criminal law the prosecution has the burden of presenting prima facie evidence of each element of the crime charged against the defendant. In a murder case, this would include evidence that the victim was in fact dead, that the defendant's act caused the death, and evidence that the defendant acted with malice aforethought. If no party introduces new evidence the case stands or falls just by the prima facie evidence or lack thereof.
Prima facie evidence need not be conclusive or irrefutable: at this stage, evidence rebutting the case is not considered, only whether any party's case has enough merit to take it to a full trial.
In some jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom, the prosecution in a criminal trial must disclose all evidence to the defense. This includes the prima facie evidence.
An aim of the doctrine of prima facie is to prevent litigants bringing spurious charges which simply waste all other parties' time.
Res ipsa loquitur
Prima facie is often confused with res ipsa loquitur (literally, "the thing speaks for itself"), the common law doctrine that when the facts make it self-evident that negligence or other responsibility lies with a party, it is not necessary to provide extraneous details, since any reasonable person would immediately find the facts of the case.
The difference between the two is that prima facie is a term meaning there is enough evidence for there to be a case to answer. Res ipsa loquitur means that because the facts are so obvious, a party need explain no more. For 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."
This doctrine no longer applies in Canadian tort law.
Criticism of subjective prima facie interpretation
It is logically and intuitively clear that just because a matter appears to be self-evident from the facts that both the notion of the evidence presenting a case in a self-evident manner and the facts actually being facts (which, presumably, would require evidence of at least a minimum degree of quality) can often be reduced to entirely subjective interpretations that are independent of any truthful merit by sufficiently skilled individuals.
That is to say, appearances can be deceptive even to the objectively minded, and they can be subjectively interpreted (meaning that what amounts to a prima facie case for one judging individual would not do so for another). Just because a matter appears to be evident from a certain presentation of the facts it does not follow that that matter has any truthful validity - which would limit the common sensical utility of prima facie evidence.
As an example, consider the following:
Statement I: "John has been shot dead. Joe has been found near John with a smoking gun. Therefore, this is prima facie evidence of Joe having shot John with a smoking gun." [the infamous Smoking Gun example] A prima facie case is one that results in conviction if all its facts are proved. First, it is analyzed whether a conviction will reasonably result if it is proven that John has been shot dead, that Joe was there with a gun, and that the gun was smoking. Then, it is determined whether those things actually did in fact happen. In a real murder case, the prima facie case would be far stronger than this, but the point of this criticism can still be seen, as the idea is that even with a prima facie case more data may be forthcoming outside of the original prima facie case that changes the result.
Apparently, this (in an overly simplified manner) indicates that we have a prima facie case for arresting (and convicting) Joe for shooting John.
However, add the following piece of evidence to the prima facie case calculations:
Statement II: "Both Joe and John were within a shooting club at the time at which John was shot dead. "
This example indicates that it is far from clear that Joe actually shot John dead due to certain facts having been selectively highlighted and presented for the purposes of the prima facie case. That is to say, because relevant circumstances are either omitted or illogically/irrationally presented for the purposes of the prima facie case - it appears as if the statement made amounts to a prima facie case. This is because sufficient evidence has apparently been presented for the purposes of the prima facie case, but necessary evidence has been omitted (a reasonable argument would be that as much evidence concerning the particulars of the case are presented within a prima facie case as possible).
Given our informal presentation of the prima facie case in Statement I, we have not contradicted any of the evidence by introducing the facts of Statement II. However, it is clear that a reasonable person would find Statement I unpalatable as a prima facie case as it contains no information relating to the particulars of a case - and it seems clear that Statement II provides sufficient reason to throw out Statement I out as being a sufficient basis for a prima facie case on reasonable grounds.
These criticisms are conceptually inherent to the notion of a prima facie case or evidence. They do not relate to the example or the quality of the evidence. The situation arises because all (or, at least, a reasonably water tight amount) of the relevant particulars of the case are not presented in an objective manner.
Other uses and references
The phrase prima facie is sometimes misspelled prima facia in the mistaken belief that facia 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 academic philosophy, in exactly the same sense used by lawyers. Among its most notable uses is in 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, for example, 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 that may be later overruled by another more pressing one; it exists only pro tempore.
In policy debate theory, prima facie is used to describe the mandates or planks of an affirmative case (or, in some rare cases, a negative counterplan). When the negative team appeals to prima facie, it appeals to the fact that the affirmative team cannot add or amend anything in its plan after being stated in the first affirmative constructive.
A common usage of the phrase is the concept of a "prima facie speed limit", which has been used in Australia and the United States. A prima facie speed limit is a default speed limit that applies when no other specific speed limit is posted, and which may be exceeded by a driver. However if the driver is detected and cited by police for exceeding the limit, the onus of proof is on the driver to show that the speed at which the driver was travelling was safe under the circumstances. In most jurisdictions, this type of speed limit has been replaced by absolute speed limits.
- 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
- Common law
- Latin legal terms
- Latin logical phrases
- Latin philosophical phrases
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