Prima Facie

Prima Facie
Prima Facie
Quick Summary of Prima Facie

Latin for “on its face.” A prima facie case is one that at first glance presents sufficient evidence for the plaintiff to win. Such a case must be refuted in some way by the defendant for him to have a chance of prevailing at trial. For example, if you can show that someone intentionally touched you in a harmful or offensive way and caused some injury to you, you have established a prima facie case of battery. However, this does not mean that you automatically win your case. The defendant would win if he could show that you consented to the harmful or offensive touching.

What is the dictionary definition of Prima Facie?
Dictionary Definition of Prima Facie

(pry-mah fay-shah) adj. Latin for “at first look” or “on its face,” referring to a lawsuit or criminal prosecution in which the evidence before trial is sufficient to prove the case unless there is substantial contradictory evidence presented at trial.

A prima facie case presented to a grand jury by the prosecution will result in an indictment. Example: in a charge of bad check writing, evidence of a half dozen checks written on a non-existent bank account makes it a prima facie case. However, proof that the bank had misprinted the account number on the checks might disprove the prosecution’s apparent “open and shut” case.

Full Definition Of Prima Facie

Prima facie is a Latin term that translates to “at first sight” or “on its face.” In the context of law, it refers to the establishment of a legally required rebuttable presumption. It signifies that a party has presented sufficient evidence to support a claim or charge, unless contradicted by further evidence. This legal concept is crucial in both civil and criminal proceedings, serving as a preliminary step to determine whether a case merits further examination or dismissal.

Introduction to Prima Facie

Prima facie is a fundamental legal principle that plays a pivotal role in the judicial process. It ensures that only cases with sufficient initial evidence proceed to full trials, thereby safeguarding judicial efficiency and protecting individuals from baseless claims. This overview explores the various dimensions of prima facie within the British legal system, examining its applications, implications, and significance.

Historical Context

The term prima facie has its roots in Roman law, where it was used to describe cases that appeared valid on initial examination. The concept was integrated into English common law and has since evolved into a critical procedural element. Historically, prima facie has been instrumental in shaping the standards of evidence and the burden of proof, ensuring that the legal process remains fair and just.

Prima Facie in Civil Law

Establishing a Prima Facie Case

In civil law, establishing a prima facie case is the first step in litigation. The claimant must present evidence that, if uncontested, would be sufficient to prove their claim. This does not mean that the case is conclusively proven, but rather that it meets the minimum threshold to warrant further examination.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof in a prima facie case initially rests with the claimant. They must demonstrate that their evidence is credible and sufficient to support their claims. If the claimant succeeds, the burden then shifts to the defendant to refute the evidence or present a valid defence. This shifting of the burden ensures that both parties have an opportunity to present their case fully.

Prima Facie in Criminal Law

Prosecutorial Requirements

In criminal law, the concept of prima facie is crucial during the early stages of prosecution. The prosecution must present enough evidence to show that a crime has likely been committed and that the accused is probably responsible. This prima facie evidence must be compelling enough to convince a magistrate or judge that the case should proceed to trial.

Defence Strategies

For the defence, challenging the prosecution’s prima facie case is a common strategy. This can involve questioning the credibility of the evidence, highlighting inconsistencies, or presenting alternative explanations. If the defence can successfully undermine the prima facie case, the charges may be dismissed before reaching a full trial.

Key Case Law

Several landmark cases have shaped the understanding and application of prima facie in British law. These cases illustrate the nuances and complexities involved in establishing and contesting prima facie evidence.

Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562

In this seminal case, the House of Lords established the modern concept of negligence in tort law. The plaintiff, Mrs. Donoghue, claimed to have found a decomposed snail in a bottle of ginger beer, which she consumed. The court held that she had presented a prima facie case of negligence, setting a precedent for duty of care.

R v Galbraith [1981] 1 WLR 1039

This case clarified the standards for dismissing a criminal case at the no-case-to-answer stage. The Court of Appeal held that a case should only be dismissed if the evidence is so weak that no reasonable jury could convict. This principle is crucial for understanding the strength required of prima facie evidence in criminal trials.

Prima Facie Evidence vs. Conclusive Evidence

Prima facie evidence differs significantly from conclusive evidence. While prima facie evidence is sufficient to establish a case initially, it is not definitive proof of the claim. Conclusive evidence, on the other hand, is irrefutable and leads to a final decision without the need for further inquiry. Understanding this distinction is essential for legal practitioners when assessing the strength of their case.

Prima Facie and Summary Judgement

Summary judgement is a legal procedure used to expedite the resolution of a case without a full trial. If a party can demonstrate that there is no genuine dispute of material fact and that they are entitled to judgement as a matter of law, the court may issue a summary judgement. Prima facie evidence plays a critical role in this context, as it forms the basis for determining whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a trial.

Application in Employment Law

In employment law, prima facie cases often arise in disputes over unfair dismissal, discrimination, and harassment. The claimant must show that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that their rights have been violated. For instance, in a discrimination case, the claimant must present prima facie evidence that they were treated differently based on a protected characteristic.

Example: Discrimination Claims

To establish a prima facie case of discrimination, the claimant must typically demonstrate:

  • Membership in a protected class
  • Qualifications for the position
  • Suffering an adverse employment action
  • Evidence suggests that the adverse action was due to discrimination

Once these elements are established, the burden shifts to the employer, who must provide a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for their actions.

Application in Tort Law

Prima facie cases in tort law involve demonstrating that the defendant’s actions caused harm to the claimant. This requires showing that the defendant owed a duty of care, breached that duty, and caused damage as a result.

Example: Negligence

In negligence cases, establishing a prima facie case involves proving:

  • The existence of a duty of care
  • A breach of that duty
  • Causation linking the breach to the harm
  • Actual damages suffered by the claimant

If the claimant can present sufficient evidence on these points, the burden then shifts to the defendant to refute the allegations or mitigate their liability.

Prima Facie and Discrimination Cases

Discrimination cases, particularly under the Equality Act 2010, frequently rely on prima facie evidence. Claimants must initially show that they have been treated less favourably based on characteristics such as race, gender, age, or disability. This prima facie evidence then requires the respondent to justify their actions or face potential liability.

Case Study: McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green (1973)

Although it is a US case, McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green provides a framework often referenced in British discrimination law. The case established a three-step process for proving discrimination, starting with the claimant’s prima facie case, followed by the employer’s burden to articulate a legitimate reason for the adverse action, and concluding with the claimant’s opportunity to show that the reason was pretextual.

Challenges and Criticisms

While prima facie is a powerful tool in the legal system, it is not without challenges and criticisms. One key issue is the subjective nature of what constitutes sufficient prima facie evidence, leading to inconsistencies in judicial decisions. Additionally, the shifting burden of proof can sometimes disadvantage less resourced parties, who may struggle to gather the necessary evidence.

Inconsistency in Application

Different judges may apply the prima facie standard differently, leading to varied outcomes in similar cases. This inconsistency can undermine the predictability and fairness of the legal process.

Burden on Claimants

In some cases, the requirement to establish a prima facie case can place a significant burden on claimants, particularly in complex or highly technical cases. This can discourage individuals from pursuing legitimate claims due to the challenges in gathering sufficient initial evidence.


Prima facie is a cornerstone of the British legal system, ensuring that only cases with sufficient initial evidence proceed to trial. It serves as a filter to prevent frivolous claims and streamline the judicial process. While the concept is not without its challenges, it remains an essential aspect of legal practice, balancing the interests of claimants and defendants and upholding the principles of justice.

Understanding prima facie involves recognising its role in shifting the burden of proof, its application across various areas of law, and the judicial interpretations that have shaped its current usage. As legal practices and societal norms evolve, the application of prima facie will continue to adapt, maintaining its relevance in the ever-changing landscape of law.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 7th June 2024.

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