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What is a Question of Fact?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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A question of fact is a legal issue or dispute over a material fact in a case. This is a distinct from a question of law, which requires the use of legal principles to resolve. If there is a question of fact, a judge or jury, also known as triers of fact, will be impaneled to resolve the question at hand.

Whether a dispute is a question of fact or of law can be somewhat confusing. Usually, most examples of a question of fact will ask if and how an event or action occurred, whereas a question of law will ask if an event or action was legal. For instance, a question of law might ask if defendant Joe shooting and killing his wife is premeditated murder or a crime of passion. A question of fact, in contrast, would ask if defendant Joe shot and killed his wife.

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Though the categories can get somewhat murky, determining whether something is a question of law or fact can play a major part in whether a case goes to trial or is subject to a summary judgment. If no factual issues of a case are disputed, and the case clearly contains a question of law only, a judge may choose to summarily decide the case rather than order a trial. If, for example, if a person accused of speeding is given a ticket, but both he and the issuing officer agree that he was speeding on his own property only, whether or not a speeding law applies to personally owned property might be considered a question of law. Depending on the applicable traffic laws, the judge might move to summarily judge the issue by saying that the speeding law does or does not apply in this case.

One key to determining whether a case will proceed to trial is if the question of fact is material to the case. If the disputed fact is over a trivial item that does not have to do with the case, the judge may decide to issue a summary judgment and ignore the question of fact. If a case is filed over the fraudulent sale of a piece of real estate, and the plaintiff and defendant's only real factual disagreement is over which football game was on television the day of the sale, the judge may not consider this question of fact relevant to the trial.

Cases that center on a question of fact are usually difficult to appeal. Since the judge in a factually-based trial has access to all evidence, appellate courts usually assume that he or she was in a position to make a clear decision on whether something was fact or not. In contrast, when dealing with questions of law, appellate courts are more likely to be willing to listen to an appeal that claims that the original judge or jury did not correctly interpret or apply the law.

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