What does "De Facto" Mean?

Mary McMahon

The phrase “de facto” is Latin for “in fact.” It is used to describe commonly accepted practice which has no legal or official status. For example, English is the de facto language of Australia, meaning that it has no formal legal status, but most citizens speak English, and English is used on government documents. By contrast, something mandated or authorized by law is said to be “de jure,” or “in law.”

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

This phrase is used in a variety of ways, including politics, government, and sociology. Many people use the term to refer to situations of questionable legality or morality. For example, the United States endured decades of de facto racism after several laws were passed in an attempt to make racial prejudice illegal. Racism persisted so long in some regions of the United States because it had become common practice, and legislation alone was not enough to put an end to racism.

It is fairly common to see a de facto standard, a tradition which is followed without any legal basis. For example, many businesses have de facto hiring standards which are not explicitly stated, such as a preference for employees who look a certain way. In some cases, such a standard may be illegal, but because it has not been formalized, it is difficult to prosecute.

De facto standards often reflect commonly-held opinions about women, racial minorities, and the disabled. Because many people in a society may share these ideas, it can be difficult to identify patterns which suggest that a government or industry is using such a standard, making it hard to challenge the standard. In nations where laws are in place to prevent or reduce discrimination, many people are also very careful to avoid revealing the existence of a de facto standard. For example, if a business decides it does not want to hire women for a particular position, it will find legitimate excuses to deny the job applications of women so that it cannot be accused of discrimination.

Activists who fight discrimination often claim that de facto discrimination is the hardest to fight. De jure discrimination can be eliminated by re-writing or throwing out old laws, and creating new ones to address the changing face of society. However, when the letter of the law is not upheld by common practice, citizens may see little difference after a struggle to eliminate de jure discrimination.

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Discussion Comments


Please, could you tell me what a de facto monarch means?


In an office setting, ignoring the defacto rules can really be an issue. Often it is assumed these are actual rules and certain people can be greatly offended when they are not followed. This can include anything from dress to where to eat lunch. For example, if the defacto rule is that you take a fifteen minute lunch in the office then work through the rest of the break, but the actual rule is that there is a full hour lunch available, some employees might be really put out if a new employee decided to take the full lunch hour. It is wise to research defacto policies as well as actually policies when starting a new job, if you desire success.


The idea of a de facto law, or unwritten law, is another problem in many societies. People will say that they have "always done it this way" for anything from what types of people get hired, to what types get accepted into a college, to what foods are eaten or clothing is considered acceptable. Sometimes these are just silly, but sometimes the de facto way of doing things can be really harmful to people.

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