Legal English: Prima Facie

In the “Legal English” blog post series, we will be examining legal language commonly used by American attorneys that may be unfamiliar to foreign lawyers. Our aim is to assist attorneys from abroad with developing their vocabulary and increasing their comfort when communicating with U.S. lawyers.

Today’s phrase is prima facie, which is typically used in reference to evidence or a case to indicate that the basic facts asserted, if they are credible and uncontroverted, support a particular conclusion. Here are some example sentences using the phrase:

  • As the studio has demonstrated that: 1. It owns the copyright for the movie Legal Eagles: Claws of Terror; and 2. the defendant was witnessed selling unauthorized DVD copies thereof, a prima faciecase for copyright infringement has been made.
  • These photographs of the defendant jumping the fence in disregard of the “Authorized Personnel Only” sign are prima facie evidence of trespassing.

The concept of a prima facie case relates directly to a party’s burden of proof. In cases both criminal and civil, when a basic factual showing of the core elements of a particular crime or cause of action has been made, a prima facie case has been established. In the first example sentence above, the cause of action for copyright infringement has  )for purposes of our example) two elements: 1. ownership of a copyrighted work; and 2. infringing behavior on the part of the defendant. When the plaintiff submits evidence to establish each element, the plaintiff has made a prima facie case for copyright infringement.

It then becomes the defendant’s task to attack the credibility or quality of the evidence submitted, to raise a defense or to otherwise take dispositive action. The effect of making a prima facie case is that, if the defendant does nothing further whatsoever in the matter, the plaintiff has satisfied a basic evidentiary burden and, all things being equal, will prevail.