What is a Right to Appeal?

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  • Written By: Maggie Worth
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 10 March 2020
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A right to appeal is a legal term denoting that a losing party has the right to ask a higher court to hear his case again. In criminal cases, this right is granted solely to the defendant. Some jurisdictions that allow appeals in civil cases also grant the right to appeal to plaintiffs.

In many jurisdictions, particularly in the United States, Canada and Europe, the right to appeal is an innate part of the criminal justice process. This means that every convicted defendant automatically has the right to appeal his case, unless he has been convicted by the highest court in the land. Most jurisdictions that grant criminal defendants the right to an attorney regardless of ability to pay extend that right to include the appeals process.

In most cases, the right to appeal must follow a prescribed process wherein the case is appealed to each level of court in order. This means that a conviction in a local court can then be appealed to a state or provincial court and then to the national or federal court. Defendants convicted in a local court cannot usually skip the state or province step and go straight to a federal court. Some jurisdictions have entirely separate systems of courts set up specifically to handle appeals.


The court hearing the appeal must generally have jurisdictional authority over the case. In some places, the right to appeal is limited to a specific time frame or number of appeals. In others, the defendant can appeal until he runs out of higher courts to hear his case.

The defendant and his council may know that the appeal cannot win, but may appeal anyway to achieve another objective. For example, a criminal sentenced to death may appeal his case simply so he can live longer. A white-collar defendant may use the appeals process to stay out of jail, as many jurisdictions allow non-violent criminals to remain free until the appeals process is exhausted. A rich civil defendant may appeal a case over and over in the hopes that the plaintiff will run out of money and be unable to afford further prosecution.

In some jurisdictions, the defendant has the right to appeal the settlement or sentencing of his case without appealing the finding. In a criminal case, this means that the convicted defendant can ask a higher court for a lighter sentence without asking the court to reevaluate his guilt or innocence. Likewise, in a civil divorce case, a settlement appeal allows the appealing party to ask for a redistribution of assets, or a reduction or increase in payments, such as spousal or child support, without asking the court to nullify the divorce.


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