Understanding Appeals

Appeal to a higher court to reverse a lower court’s decision

Southern California Appellate Lawyer

What Is an Appeal?

In basic terms, an appeal is a plea to a higher court to reverse a lower court’s decision. Appeals are only intended to correct genuine legal mistakes—it doesn’t apply if a litigant simply disagrees with a ruling. If a litigant believes the trial court made an error, he or she can file a Notice of Appeal. Most commonly, the appellant (the person filing the appeal) will claim that the judge made an error identifying the appropriate legal principles and precedents relevant to the case.

Sometimes, an appellant will argue that the judge abused his or her discretion in applying otherwise appropriate legal principles to the facts of his or her particular case. This is a much more difficult appeal to pursue. An appellate attorney can identify the best potential arguments on which to base an appeal, and he or she can inform you on whether or not pursuing an appeal would be worthwhile.

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The Appeals Process

Once an appeal is filed, the appealing party will be ordered to prepare an opening brief. The other party is given the opportunity to file a responding brief. The court then sets a hearing, called the “oral argument,” and the parties’ attorneys argue the appeal before a panel of three appellate justices.

In most family law cases, the oral argument will last 10 to 15 minutes per side. The appellate justices do not accept new evidence or hear witness testimony. They base their opinion primarily on the written briefs. This is why it is very important to consult early on with an experienced appellate attorney who can communicate to the appellate justices the strongest reasons why the judgment needs to be reversed (or who can best defend the trial court’s decision).

When Can I Appeal?

Requirements for appeals are focused on three major factors: a person who can appeal, a judgment that is appealable, and timing. You must meet specific qualifications in each of these areas to appeal.


  • Determining if you are an “aggrieved” person. A person is aggrieved when the underlying decision affected their legal rights. That usually means that you, or your children, were involved in the case directly or the litigation or dispute costs you money. You may only appeal on behalf of children—no one else.
  • Determining if your judgment can be appealed. The judgment must be considered “final” before an appeal is allowed. The final judgment is usually at the end of the dispute, and there is nothing left for you or the court to do. If the matter is dismissed, you are usually allowed to appeal the dismissal as well.
  • Determining if you still have time to file an appeal. Once you have determined that you qualify for an appeal and the judgment is able to be appealed, you must make the decision to appeal fairly quickly. You or your attorney must file the Notice of Appeal within 180 days of the order of judgment’s date to let the court know that you intend to appeal.

If the appellate court decides that the writ does not have merit, it can issue a summary denial – which is a denial of the writ without explanation. A litigant will not know whether the writ was denied on its merits or because of a procedural mistake. An experienced appellate attorney is a significant benefit in this case, as he or she will be very familiar with the proper procedures—as well as the best way to present the writ to the appellate court.