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What Is Prima Facie?

Prima facie cases are those that can proceed to trial without having to be reviewed by a grand jury.
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  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2014
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Prima facie is a term used in law. It comes from Latin and means “at first sight” or “upon first appearance." As an adjectival phrase, it is generally used to modify the word evidence and refers to evidence that is given a “once over” to see if it meets some minimal criteria, with the understanding that it will usually be reviewed more thoroughly at a later date and held to a higher standard. In this usage, then, prima facie means that, in the context, the evidence appears to meet the legal requirements to establish the basis for a case or the truth of a fact. A prima facie case, on the other hand, is a case or lawsuit that has the appearance of being a foregone conclusion.

Prima facie comes into the practice of law in several ways. For example, evidence that someone initiated a standard sequence of events may be accepted as proof that the expected outcome occurred, unless there is evidence to the contrary. Thus, proof of having mailed a letter is prima facie evidence that the letter was delivered. Evidence in the form of a copy of a document made through a photocopying process is prima facie evidence that the originals exist, and may be accepted in lieu of the originals, unless there is evidence to suggest why they should not be.

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In jurisdictions in which there is a grand jury, such as some parts of the United States, a prima facie case must be made to a grand jury in order for the prosecution to secure an indictment. A prima facie case is a lesser burden of proof than is required to secure a conviction during a trial, when guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. This is because a grand jury is not convened to find guilt or innocence, but only to discover whether there is justification for a trial to take place.

Even in the United States in jurisdictions in which they are still used, grand juries are not convened in every case. In the United States and parts of the world in which there are no grand juries, prima facie cases may still play a role in what are known as preliminary hearings, in which the justification for a court case is decided. Preliminary hearings are used in a number of countries, including the United Kingdom. Another name for such hearing is evidentiary hearings.

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Bertie68
Post 4

I remember from the law classes I took to become a paralegal, that in some jurisdictions, one of the main purposes of a prima facie evidence hearing is to prevent one side from presenting evidence that is false. This is a waste of money and time.

For example, when a murder case is being presented, the prosecution presents prima facie evidence that the person is dead (a dead body), that the defendant caused the death, and that there is evidence that the defendant thought about it beforehand. That's about all that is needed to move the case into a court.

sweetPeas
Post 3

I have a question -- if there is a non-grand jury court case and the prosecutors have enough evidence to go to court, would there be any reason that they would hold back and only do a prima facie hearing first?

Would there ever be any strategic value to that?

KaBoom
Post 2

@JessicaLynn - I agree that there should be a standard of evidence to decide if a case is heard. I also think it makes sense that it is a lower standard than when a case is actually tried.

My mom used to work for a lawyer, and one of their standards in deciding whether to take a case is whether or not there was adequate evidence to make a prima facie case. That way they wouldn't waste their, or the clients time, on a case that wouldn't get past preliminary hearings.

JessicaLynn
Post 1

I think it makes a lot of sense that prima facie is the standard used for preliminary hearings. After all, there has to be some standard to decide whether a case actually gets heard or not.

Having an actual trial can be costly and time consuming for everyone involved. Not to mention the emotional toll it can take on the participants. So I think it makes a lot of sense to make sure there is actually acceptable evidence to hold a trial.

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