If you have ever heard or used the expression of something being ‘an open and shut case,’ then today’s term is for you. Though this legal phrase may seem to be jargon only understood by lawyers and academics, getting beyond the first glance, it actually applies basic logic to many aspects of life. Indeed, many of the things we understand, or, to put it precisely, interpret, are due to prima facie, but before getting into that, let’s have a look at the term itself.
Naturally, like most Western legal terms, prima facie, comes from Latin and is translated to mean ‘at first sight or appearance’ (from prima ‘first’ and facies ‘form, face’.)
Since we are looking at the word from a mainly legal perspective, this term is used in criminal and civil law to demonstrate that there is enough initial evidence to support a case. While that might be a bit hard to follow in theory, below is a simple example.
Suppose that someone in your office is going to a local coffee shop, and you hand them your credit card, asking them to buy a cup for you. Your co-worker agrees and soon returns with your coffee, receipt, and your card. A few days later, when you check your card account balance, the charge for the coffee shop trip appears to be €100. Knowing that your cup of coffee does not cost that much and that you were not overcharged (by looking at your receipt), and since your card has not been stolen, you prima facie would suggest that your co-worker has misused your credit card.
And we could easily further apply prima facie to our everyday lives. If the roads are icy while you are driving somewhere and you happen to pass a car accident, you logically assume that the slick road is what caused the accident. Or if you walk into your house to find the curtains shredded and your cat just sitting there, you can assume, at first glance, that the cat is responsible.
The phrase prima facie first appeared in English circa 1500, in a dream vision poem called The Assembly of Gods by an unknown author, which states that: “Here, prima facie, to us he does appear that he has offended, no man can say no.”
While the phrase is still mostly associated with legal terminology, it has started to creep into more daily and widespread usage, beginning with Sir Walter Scott’s 1815 novel, The Antiquary, where he first wrote that: “Were it in the case of any other person, I own, I should say it looked, prima facie, a little ugly.”
So, hopefully, the next time you see this word, you won’t, prima facie, exhale a painful sigh.