Going Through Your Case with a Fine Tooth Comb: Appeals in North Carolina

Judges sometimes make a ruling the day of court, perhaps after a child custody case. Other times, they take the case “under advisement” which means the judge is not prepared to make a ruling in court. Instead, the judge will consider testimony given by the witnesses, and sift through stacks of evidence and notes. Then, the judge usually makes a ruling by sending an e-mail to the attorneys or by putting a letter in their courthouse boxes.

You Don’t Like What Happened – Now What?

To appeal the ruling in your case, there must generally be some error in the way the judge applied the law in the case. If the judge ruled on the disputed facts in a case, the ruling is about the facts of the case, not the law. The judge decides the facts when there is a ruling that a person did something, or did not do something when there is a “he said, she said” situation. There are strict time limits for you to appeal, limits that begin on the day the order is officially filed. Temporary rulings are not typically eligible for appeal because they are later replaced by permanent orders entered when the entire case is done. At that time, the judge may choose to adjust the ruling to account for anything he or she feels should be addressed since the time the case was first filed.

Where Does Your Case Go and Who Handles It?

At the trial level, North Carolina family law cases are tried in District Court, the same court that handles traffic matters or misdemeanor criminal matters. Appeals from the trial court are heard by the North Carolina Court of Appeals in Raleigh. In rare cases, family law cases are then appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Some family law attorneys handle appeals but many do not. There is a completely different set of rules and procedures for appellate cases. Such a case can easily take a year or two for the appeal to be completed. The appellate court will affirm (uphold), reverse (overturn) or remand (send back to be tried all over again) the trial court’s original ruling.

What Does All This Mean?

Any appeal takes a long time to wind through the system, just as a trial case does. And just like the lower court trial, an appeal is expensive and the stakes are high. In Eastern North Carolina, the cost of appeals makes them out of reach for many people. The trial level ruling is extremely important. Appeals are not the only option. If both parties agree, they can participate in alternative dispute resolution such as arbitration. If they participate in arbitration, they essentially hire a qualified decision-maker to make the decision for them.

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