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Prima facie: Meaning and use in court of law

[] What does the term ‘prima facie’ mean in legal parlance? We explain

What is prima facie?

Prima facie is a Latin phrase that means ‘at first sight’, ‘at first view’, or ‘based on first impression.’ It has become ubiquitous in legal procedure and connotes facts as truth, unless proven otherwise. In civil and criminal law, the term denotes that upon initial judgement, a legal claim has sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

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In a legal proceeding, a plaintiff or a prosecutor has a plethora of proof, which requires them to present prima facie evidence for elements of the charges against the defendant. If a plaintiff fails to produce prima facie evidence or if an opposing party introduces compelling contradictory evidence, the initial claim will be dismissed without any need for a response by other parties.

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Understanding prima facie with an example

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In a civil litigation, a plaintiff files a lawsuit claiming that a defendant’s action or inaction caused an injury. For example, suppose that a business files a claim against its vendor for breach of contract, for the vendor’s failure to deliver an order that resulted in a loss for a company. The complaint filed with the court will entail background information like the reason for the lawsuit, what the loss/injury was and how the defendant may have contributed to it.

Before the commencement of the trial, the court will determine if the case has enough merit to be tried in court. During the pre-trial hearing, a judge may determine that enough evidence exists to establish a rebuttable presumption in favour of the plaintiff.

However, if a prima facie case goes to trial, it does not guarantee winning the lawsuit. In a civil lawsuit, if the plaintiff provides a plethora of evidence, then, the court considers the claim as valid. If the plaintiff lacks sufficient evidence to support its claim, the court will decide against the plaintiff and dismiss the case. If the court decides that a prima facie case exists, the defendant must present evidence that overcomes the prima facie case, to win.

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Are prima facie and res ipsa loquitur the same thing?

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Res ipsa loquitur is a Latin phrase meaning ‘the thing speaks for itself.’ It is common in personal injury cases where a plaintiff shows that the other party’s wrongdoing or negligence caused the injury at issue. Using res ipsa loquitur, the plaintiff uses circumstantial evidence to establish that the injury was of the sort that would not occur without negligence.

The main difference between prima facie and res ipsa loquitur is that the prima facie cases require several pieces of evidence for a case to be valid and go to trial. However, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur states that the facts of the case are obvious and do not need any supporting evidence to make them clear.


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Category: Must Knows

Debora Berti

Università degli Studi di Firenze, IT

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