Prima Facie: What Does It Mean and How to Establish
The term “prima facie” is a Latin expression that means “at first sight” or based “on first impression”. In law, a prima facie case refers to evidence that, unless rebutted, would be sufficient to prove a particular proposition or fact.
This article will explain how the concept of “a prima facie case” is applied by Singapore courts in civil and criminal proceedings in particular. It will cover:
Establishing a Prima Facie Case in Civil Proceedings in Singapore
Civil proceedings involve a legal dispute between two or more parties. In civil proceedings, the party making the allegation (known as the claimant) has to prove a prima facie case. When a prima facie case is shown, the facts presented are sufficient to support the legal claim and shift the burden of evidence production to the opposing party.
For example, the victim of a car accident suffers serious injuries. The victim (i.e. the claimant) alleges that the lorry driver (i.e. the defendant) was responsible for the accident. The victim, therefore, has to prove a state of facts from which the reasonable inference to be drawn is that prima facie, the lorry driver had been negligent. Only once this is proven can the victim then call on the lorry driver to respond to the claim of negligence.
In negligence cases, a prima facie case can be made out if a duty of care can be shown to have existed between the claimant and the defendant.
For instance, there is a generally accepted duty of care that is owed by motorists toward pedestrians on the road. Hence, the prima facie case of negligence is established if the victim can show that the motorist fell below the standard of care e.g. driving recklessly at a high speed and that his recklessness caused the accident that resulted in injury to the victim.
Protection order cases
In an application for a protection order, the claimant would need to make a prima facie case of family violence before the court would grant a protection order.
The court would need to be satisfied on a balance of probabilities that family violence had been committed or is likely to be committed against a family member. This is the legal standard of proof in civil proceedings, where the court must be satisfied that an event occurred if, based on the evidence, the occurrence of the event was more likely than not.
Prima facie evidence that would satisfy the court to grant a protection order would include the infliction of family violence against a family member. Family violence can take various forms, including:
- Willfully or knowingly placing, or attempting to place, a family member in fear of hurt (e.g. making repeated threats of violence or using hand gestures to indicate violence to that family member);
- Causing hurt to a family member; or
- Wrongfully confining or restraining a family member against his or her will.
Causing continual harassment with intention to cause anguish to a family member also constitutes family violence. The victim would also need to present evidence that without a protection order granted, such family violence would persist.
In certain cases, if the defendant is able to show that the actions were in fact correction (or discipline) towards a child under the age of 21, then the prima facie evidence may be sufficiently rebutted.
What happens if a prima facie case is established in civil proceedings?
If the defendant makes a submission of no case to answer at the close of the claimant’s case and the court rejects that submission (i.e. the court finds that the claimant has made out a prima facie case), the claimant wins the case. The defendant will not be allowed to enter his defence.
Establishing a Prima Facie Case in Criminal Proceedings in Singapore
In criminal proceedings, the prosecution has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a legal burden of proof required to affirm a conviction in a criminal case.
The Public Prosecutor (i.e., the prosecution) has to prove a prima facie case before the person accused of committing the criminal offence in question (i.e. the accused) is called to make his defence. To this end, the court must first consider the evidence presented by the prosecution.
A prima facie case is made out if the evidence as a whole is sufficient, if unrebutted, to warrant the accused’s conviction. “Unrebutted” in this case could mean either of two things:
- Where the accused, having been called on to enter his defence, declines to do so; or
- Having entered his defence, the accused fails to adduce sufficient evidence to rebut the prosecution’s prima facie case.
In this hypothetical example, Amy, the accused, has been charged with fatally stabbing her former lover, Alex. The prima facie evidence presented by the prosecution would be evidence showing that:
- Alex was dead (consequence of action causing death);
- Amy’s actions caused the death (actus reus or action); and
- Amy intended to commit murder or knew that her actions would result in Alex’s death (mens rea or mental element).
If the above evidence is unrebutted, it would be sufficient to prove that Amy is guilty of the offence of murder.
Sexual assault cases
In a sexual assault case, the prima facie evidence should include evidence that:
- The victim had been sexually assaulted (i.e. the act itself);
- That the accused was the person who sexually assaulted the victim; and
- That consent was not given for the sexual act.
The issue at the end of the prosecution’s case is whether the accused needs to be called to answer the case (i.e. has a case to answer). This depends on whether the evidence as it stands then, if accepted by the court, would be sufficient to prove every element of the offence in question either directly or inferentially.
What happens if a prima facie case is established in criminal proceedings?
In criminal proceedings, if the court finds that the prosecution has made out a prima facie case, the accused will be called upon to enter his defence. Calling for the accused’s defence at the close of the prosecution’s case will bring the proceedings to the next stage i.e. the criminal trial, where the accused is expected to rebut the prosecution’s prima facie case by giving his defence.
Even if the defence is called, if the accused decides not to enter his defence, the court may still acquit him if, on a final evaluation of all the available evidence brought before it, the court concludes that the charge has not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The court may do so if it considers that some or all of the elements of the offence in question have not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the earlier hypothetical example, Amy may still be acquitted if the prosecution is unable to prove she had the intention of causing Alex’s death, e.g. if the stabbing was an accident.
What is required to establish a prima facie case in Singapore varies on a case-to-case basis. If you are unsure as to what evidence to present or how to present a prima facie case, it is best to consult a civil or criminal lawyer depending on the nature of the proceedings.
You can use our Find a Lawyer service to find a suitable lawyer for your matter.
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