Prima Facie

Throughout the history of the use of the term in Latin, ‘prima facie’ meant only the most cursory, initial impression. It retained that meaning upon its adoption into colloquial English.

The term ‘prima facie’ is used in the law both as an adjective and as an adverb. The Common Law Courts which developed the judicial meaning of ‘prima facie’, however, often did not distinguish between the meanings of a ‘prima facie case’ and ‘prima facie evidence’. This is because the terms are similar in meaning and because there is overlap in use between them. An example will illustrate. Murder is a conclusion of law with several discrete legal elements, including criminal intent. A note written by the accused that reads, “I am going to kill Jimmy because I hate him” may properly be said to be, in itself, ‘prima facie evidence’ of criminal intent. Its introduction may properly be said to establish a ‘prima facie case’ of the single element of criminal intent, even though neither the note itself nor its introduction establishes a ‘prima facie case’ of murder. Adding to the confusion is that sometimes a single piece of evidence can establish or appear to establish all the necessary elements of a conclusion of law, especially if that conclusion of law has few elements. For example, a marriage license may both be ‘prima facie evidence’ that a marriage took place and be used by itself to establish a ‘prima facie case’ of marriage.

While not all Courts realize that two distinct terms are in common use, many do. The Indian Supreme Court has said the following:

A prima facie case does not mean a case proved to the hilt but a case which can be said to be established if the evidence which is led in support of the same were believed. While determining whether a prima facie case had been made out the relevant consideration is whether on the evidence led it was possible to arrive at the conclusion in question and not whether that was the only conclusion which could be arrived at on that evidence.”

Hon’ble Justice N.H. Bhagwati, Martin Burn v. R.N. Banerjee, AIR 1958 SC 79.

Also see, M. Chandrasekaran, [Civil Appeal Nos. 6765-66 of 2014] decided on 02.09.2016.

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