Prima Facie Case: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

A prima facie case is presented at a pretrial hearing to determine whether a case merits going to trial. The prima facie case needs to show that the charges likely have merit, but it does not have to prove that the defendant is guilty.

Prima Facie Case: Venue


If you go to the emergency room walk-in, you will be called back after you check in, and a nurse will do a quick check of your vitals and mental status. This quick check is the process of triage, where patients are sorted out to determine what order they should be seen in and whether they should get emergency services or be sent to their regular doctor. In law, a pretrial hearing is the legal equivalent to triage and is where a prima facie case is presented and examined to see whether a case merits going to trial.


Pretrial Hearing
Pretrial Hearing

The prima facie case is the opportunity for the plaintiff to present a preview of the case they are making. The term 'prima facie' is Latin, meaning 'on its face' or 'at first look.' The prima facie case is presented by the prosecutor or plaintiff to a judge at a pretrial to show there is a good reason to take the case to trial. If the judge agrees that there appears to be evidence meriting a trial, the court date is then set. If there is not sufficient evidence to merit a trial, the judge may decide to dismiss the case.

Prima facie cases are important for protecting the rights of defendants and checking the actions of police and prosecutors. Without such a system, many defendants might need to expend a lot of effort and money to go to a trial based on flimsy evidence. A prima facie case also checks how police use probable cause in the course of policing communities to make sure that the rights of citizens are protected from unlawful search and seizure.


Criminal Cases

In a criminal proceeding, the probable cause that the police used to enter a premise or make an arrest is usually presented as part of a prima facie case for trial. In a murder case, the prosecutor might show angry texts or voicemail that suggest that the defendant had motive. In burglary cases, the evidence could be images showing the defendant was on the premises without permission. The evidence doesn't need to be definitive, but it should show that the charges merits closer examination.

In a criminal charge, some types of evidence may merit dismissing the case. If the defense can show that the link between the evidence and the charge is weak, it can result in a dismissal. If the best evidence for a burglary case is just that the defendant was in possession of stolen goods, that's not really proof that they did anything illegal. A lack of other evidence can result in the case being dismissed.

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