An appeal is a way to challenge a decision that a judge made in your case. Appealing a decision is a complicated process and you may want to talk to a lawyer if you are thinking about filing an appeal. This section will give you basic information on what an appeal is and what to think about when deciding if you want to appeal.
What is an appeal?
An appeal is when you ask a higher court to review a decision by a judge in a lower court. The higher court (which may be called a court of appeals, appellate court, or supreme court, for example) looks at the "record", which includes the transcript, physical evidence/ documents from the trial court and decides if the judge made any mistakes of law. You cannot introduce new evidence when you appeal your case to a higher court. The higher court only looks at what was said and done in the trial court.
Usually, you only have a short time to file an appeal after the judge issues the order or decision you want to appeal. The time limit may be different depending on what state you live in and/or what type of case you want to appeal. You may want to talk to a lawyer as soon as possible about the time limit in your state so that you do not lose your chance to appeal.
Do I need a lawyer to appeal my case?
It is possible to file an appeal on your own, but it is generally a complicated procedure with technical rules of law. It is hard to do without a lawyer. If you do decide to file an appeal on your own, you may want to talk to a lawyer for advice as you plan your strategy. For legal help, you can go to our Finding a Lawyer page (although you may have to call many places to find one that does appeals) or check out the Appeals section of our National Organizations page. If you are a domestic violence victim, and your case is related to domestic violence, you may want to check with your State Coalition Against Domestic Violence to ask if they help with appeals or if they can refer you. You'll find contact information for your state's coalition on our Advocates and Shelters page after you enter your state in the drop-down menu.
Grounds for an appeal
What are "grounds" for an appeal?
A “ground” is a legal term that means the reason for the appeal. You cannot appeal a court decision simply because you are unhappy with the outcome; you must have a legal ground to file the appeal. If the judge in your case made a mistake or abused his/her discretion, then you might have grounds to file an appeal. We explain what this means in the section called What are the typical grounds for appeal that judges will consider?
How many grounds can I include in my appeal?
You can base the appeal on one or many grounds. If you are writing your own appeal, you will want to include as many grounds, or reasons, as you can think of with the hope that the appeals court will agree with at least one of the grounds that you include. If you fail to include a ground for appeal in your paperwork, then you may not be able to argue that ground later as a reason to reverse the trial court judge’s decision.
Appeals can be complicated and time consuming. If you have questions about whether or not you have grounds to appeal your case, you should talk to a lawyer.
What are the typical grounds for appeal that judges will consider?
Although it may vary by state or by the type of case that you are appealing, typically the grounds for an appeal are as follows:
The judge made an error of law
An error of law generally means that the judge in your case applied the wrong rule or “legal standard” to the facts of your case. This can occur if a trial court did not follow the law in your state that is supposed to apply in your case’s circumstances. For example, if your state has certain factors that must be considered when a judge decides what is in a child’s “best interest,” and a court decision does not use those factors or relies on different factors altogether, you may have grounds to appeal based on an error of law.
The facts of the case and/or the evidence introduced in the trial court do not support the judge’s decision
This can happen when the trial court judge makes a decision that seems completely out of line with what happened at trial. The legal terminology for this is that a “sound and substantial basis” does not exist to support the trial court judge’s decision. Generally, a judge’s ruling must be based on the facts that are proven at trial. If there is no factual basis, or good reason, for a judge’s ruling in your case, then an error may have occurred. For example, if a trial court judge said that s/he made a decision based on what is in the child’s “best interest” but at trial, all of the evidence showed that a different decision should have been made, you may have grounds to appeal.
The judge “abused his/her discretion”
Before and during a trial, a judge has discretion, or the power, to decide various things. Many decisions come up during a trial, like what evidence to admit, whether to approve a plea or settlement, and how to decide on motions/requests that are made. If the judge does something that is beyond the discretion that the court is allowed, and it somehow affects the judge’s ruling or decision in the case, then it could be grounds for an appeal. For example, when using the “best interests” factors, a judge has discretion to apply different “weight” to each factor, which means to view some factors as more important than other factors. Let's say the judge in your case applies a lot of weight to the fact that the other party has four bedrooms in the home and you have three bedrooms while applying little or no weight to the fact that the other party has committed domestic violence and has a substance abuse problem, then the judge may have abused his/her discretion.
To prove abuse of discretion happened at your trial, generally you must show that the error is obvious or that it is clearly an abuse of discretion. In general, an appeals court will defer to, or go along with, a trial court judge’s decisions where discretion is allowed.
More information and other options
Where can I find more information online about filing appeals?
The American Bar Association has more information about the appeals process. There are also websites that have information about filing appeals in specific cases - for example, About.com has an article about filing an appeal in a divorce. Please note that WomensLaw.org has no relationship with these websites and cannot vouch for the information contained on them. We provide these links for your information only.
What other options are there?
Instead of appealing, in some cases, you may be able to request a modification of the court order. To request a modification of a court order, you will likely need to show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that has happened since the order was issued. You will need to go back to the court where your order was issued and file modification forms. There will probably be a new hearing on the issue. You may also want to consult with an attorney to see if filing for a modification is appropriate under the circumstances of your case.