What is a Civil Appeal?

An appeal is when someone who loses a case in a trial court asks a higher court (the appellate court) to review the trial court’s decision.

In almost all cases, the appellate court ONLY looks at two things:

  • whether a LEGAL mistake was made in the trial court; AND
  • whether this mistake changed the final decision (called the “judgment”) in the case.


An appeal is NOT:

  • A new trial with witnesses or a jury;
  • A chance to go to court and present your case all over again in front of a different judge; or
  • A chance to present new evidence or new witnesses.


The appellate court only reviews what happened in the trial court to decide if a legal mistake was made in the original trial; for example, to see if the trial court judge applied the wrong law to the facts of the case.

The appellate court cannot change the trial court’s decision just because the appellate court judges (called “justices”) disagree with it. The trial court is entitled to hear the evidence and come to its own decision. The appellate court can only reverse the trial court’s decision if it finds a legal mistake in the trial court proceedings that was so important that it changed at least part of the outcome of the case. Because of this heavy burden on the appellant to prove this type of mistake, it is quite difficult to win an appeal.

Also, keep in mind that filing an appeal does NOT stop the trial court’s order. Unless you ask the trial or appellate court to postpone (“stay”) the trial court’s order, you must do what the trial court’s order requires you to do during the appeal. A request for a stay can be complicated, and you may still have to pay some of the money ordered by the trial court upfront. Ask a lawyer if one of these options would be good in your case and get help. But remember that an appeal is NOT a way to put off having to comply with the trial court’s order.

TALK TO A LAWYER. You have the right to appeal a case without a lawyer. But appeals are very complicated and take a lot of time, effort, and money. You have to do all the paperwork correctly, meet the deadlines, and follow all the court’s rules and procedures. If you make mistakes, your case may be dismissed and you may have to pay the appeal costs of the other side. A lawyer with experience in appeals can help you make sure you complete every step correctly and on time. Also, a lawyer can help you decide if you can or should file an appeal at all. A lawyer may know how to get what you want faster and cheaper by using a different legal process. Many lawyers do not do appeals, so make sure you talk to a lawyer who specializes in appeals.

from California Courts

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