de facto | definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminal Law

De facto is a Latin phrase meaning “in fact” or “actually.” Something that exists in fact but not as a matter of law.

De facto is a Latin phrase that translates to “in fact” or “in reality.” In the realm of law and everyday language, it refers to a situation or condition that exists in fact, even if it’s not officially recognized by laws. The term is used to describe what happens in practice, in contrast to de jure, another Latin term meaning “by law,” which refers to things as they should be according to legal rules.

For instance, if a person is acting as the head of a company but hasn’t officially been appointed to that position, they would be the de facto leader. They’re performing the role in practice, even though they’re not officially recognized as the leader in terms of company law or rules.

The Importance of De Facto

Understanding the concept helps us recognize the sometimes significant gap between what is supposed to happen according to laws or rules (‘de jure’) and what actually occurs in practice (‘de facto’).

For example, consider a situation where an election in a country is supposed to be free and fair according to the country’s constitution. However, if, in reality, the election is rigged to favor a particular candidate, then the election is de jure free and fair but de facto not. This example highlights how the term can be a tool for identifying and discussing disparities between ideals and reality, which can be important in discussions about social justice, political reform, and other issues.

De Facto in Different Contexts

The term de facto is used across various fields and contexts, each time to describe conditions that exist in practice, regardless of what is officially recognized or legally established.

In law, the term might be used to describe a variety of situations. For instance, a de facto parent may not be a child’s legal parent, but they take on the role of the parent in the child’s life. Similarly, a de facto contract is an agreement that has not been formalized in writing but is respected because the parties involved behave as if a legal agreement exists.

In sociology, de facto segregation refers to the racial separation that happens in reality, even if not legally enforced. For instance, if a school is predominantly populated by students of one race because of housing patterns and socioeconomic factors.

In politics, a de facto government is one that exercises power or control without legal authority. This often happens when a political group takes control of a country by force but isn’t officially recognized by other nations.


To sum it up, de facto is a term used to describe a circumstance or condition that exists in reality, even if it’s not formally recognized by law. This term helps us acknowledge and discuss the difference between what is supposed to be (‘de jure’) and what actually is. In doing so, it enables us to better understand and navigate the complexities of law, politics, society, and more. The concept is a critical tool for shedding light on the often significant gap between the rules we set and the reality we experience.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/15/2023

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