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Legal Information

After a Decision is Issued

Updated: September 21, 2021

How do I know if I can appeal my case?

You cannot appeal a court’s decision simply because you are unhappy with the outcome; the trial judge must have made a mistake that serves as a “ground” for your appeal. (A “ground” is a legal term that means a cause or basis.) We explain the types of mistakes that might be grounds to file an appeal in the section called What are the typical “grounds for appeal” that judges will consider? Usually, you must also have pointed out that mistake to the trial judge at the time it was made by objecting in court during the trial. This is called “preserving your record.” You can read more about how objections can preserve the record for appeal in What steps do I need to take during the trial to set myself up for possibly being able to appeal if I lose?

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 either the statute or case law in your state that is supposed to apply in your case’s circumstances. For example, in custody cases, a judge must determine what is in the child’s best interests. Most states have laws setting forth certain factors that must be considered, typically called “best interests factors.” If one of those factors is whether or not a parent committed domestic violence but the trial judge ignores domestic violence evidence in making the custody determination, you may have grounds to appeal based on an error of law.

An error of law is the strongest type of ground for appeal because the appellate court reviewing the case does not have to give any weight to what the trial court judge did. The appellate court will look at the law that was supposed to be applied and decide whether or not the trial court judge made a mistake.

The judge made an error regarding the facts
Generally, a judge’s ruling in the trial court must be based on the facts that are proven at trial. In most cases involving domestic violence and family law, there is no jury and the judge serves as the “fact finder.” As fact finder, the judge must consider the evidence and decide whether or not a certain fact has been proven. Because the trial judge has the opportunity to directly observe the evidence through witness testimony and documents, photos, etc., most appellate courts will very rarely second guess a judge’s factual findings. Therefore, a trial judge’s factual error is the most difficult to establish on appeal. Appellate courts will generally not overturn a factual finding unless it is clearly wrong (“erroneous”) and the record leaves absolutely no question that the judge was wrong.

The judge “abused his/her discretion”
A trial judge has a great deal of power to make decisions in a case, with the exception of decisions that are strictly about applying the law. Examples of this broad power, known as “judicial discretion,” include what evidence to admit during the trial, whether to grant a motion or request made by a party, and whether to grant a protection order or approve a proposed settlement agreement. Appellate courts respect the trial court judges’ discretionary power because they recognize that trial judges are in the best position to make these decisions. In general, an appeals court will go along with (“defer to”) a trial court judge’s decisions that are within the judge’s discretion.

Most types of errors will fall into this category of judicial discretion and they are very difficult to win on appeal, although not quite as difficult as in the case of factual errors. If a judge makes an error when using this discretion, it will not be a sufficient ground for appeal unless you can show that the judge “abused” this discretion. In “abuse of discretion” cases, the error is obvious because, for example, the evidence introduced at trial clearly does not support the judge’s decision or the judge’s decision was completely unreasonable. For example, let’s say in a custody case, when weighing the required factors to determine what is in the child’s best interests, the judge applies a lot of weight to the fact that the other party’s home has one more bedroom than yours, but applies very little weight to the fact that the other party has committed domestic violence and has a substance abuse problem.

How do I start the appeals process?

Usually, you only have a short amount of time to file an appeal after the judge issues the order or decision that you want to appeal. To start the appeals process, you must file a Notice of Appeal within the time limit required by your state. The time limit will depend on what state you live in and what type of case you want to appeal and may be extended if you file a post-trial motion, such as a Motion for Reconsideration. In many states, but not all states, a Notice of Appeal must be filed within 30 days from the date of the final trial order. After you file the Notice of Appeal, there are other documents and/or further steps that will be required, sometimes called “perfecting the appeal,” and often these further steps will have deadlines. Examples of those additional steps are explained in The typical steps in the appeals process. If at all possible, you should consult with an attorney in your state about what these steps and deadlines are. If you are not able to talk to an attorney, many states have excellent appellate guides for unrepresented litigants on their judiciary websites that provide this information.

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 that involves written arguments (briefs) and technical rules of law. It is very 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. You should also check your state’s judiciary website to see if there are resources for unrepresented (pro se) litigants. Often these websites will have pro se guides for the appeals process. 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.

There is also an organization called DV LEAP, which takes civil appeal cases involving domestic violence or child abuse. This generally includes restraining orders, custody, divorce, or other civil cases. You can see their application form on the DV LEAP website. For other appeals organizations, please see our National Organizations - Appeals page.

What is a motion to stay? How does it affect the order I am appealing?

When you file to appeal a judge’s order, the act of filing the appeal does not stop the court order that you are appealing from going into effect. The only way that the order would not go into effect immediately is to file a post-trial motion called a Motion to Stay and for the judge to grant a “stay,” which prevents the original order from taking effect while the appeal is going on.

States may each have their own standards for when a stay will be granted but, generally, it is difficult to obtain a stay. For example, in Washington, D.C., a Motion to Stay must show: 1. that your appeal is likely to succeed; 2. that you will suffer irreparable harm if the stay is not granted and the order is allowed to go into effect; 3. that the other party will not suffer undue harm or prejudice if the stay is granted; and 4. that the public interest weighs in favor of granting the stay.1

In many states, you must file this Motion to Stay first with the trial court and, if it is denied, then you would re-file it in the appellate court. It is important to speak with an attorney from your state to find out the specific process, timeline, and criteria for filing a Motion to Stay the trial court’s order.

1  Barry v. Washington Post Co., 529 A.2d 319 (D.C.App. 1987)