John Roska: Appeals mean navigating a tricky legal system

John Roska: Appeals mean navigating a tricky legal system

Q: How do I appeal a judge's decision? Can I do it without a lawyer?

A: Appeals require filing different paperwork, by different deadlines, in two different courts. You can do it without a lawyer, but you'll have to navigate a tricky system not many lawyers know well.

Only final judgments can be appealed. What's a final judgment, and whether or how it can be appealed, are things lawyers often argue about. But, roughly speaking, a final judgment resolves everything in the case, without leaving any issues — like attorney fees — hanging.

You appeal a final judgment by filing a notice of appeal in the trial court. It must be filed within 30 days of when that final judgment was entered. That's the easiest part of the process.

Then, within seven days, you must send a copy of the notice of appeal to the other side in the case. (You're always required to send the other side a copy of anything you file with a court.)

Within 14 days of filing the notice of appeal in the trial court, you must file a "docketing statement" in the appellate court. It's about three pages long, and provides very basic information about the case and the parties.

Also within 14 days of filing your notice of appeal, you as the appellant must make a written request for transcripts of the proceedings in the trial court — if you want them. Transcripts aren't required, but if you want them, you must pay for them. (Or, get a waiver of court fees.)

If you or the other side ask for transcripts, they must be filed in the trial court within 49 days of when the notice of appeal was filed. Within 63 days, the complete "record on appeal," consisting of all the papers in the court file, and the transcripts, must be sent by the circuit clerk of the trial court to the appellate court.

Once that record is filed, you have 35 days to file your written brief in the appellate court. That brief must set out your legal argument about why the judgment should be reversed. It must follow a basic format, and contain citations to legal authority that support your argument.

The other side's brief is due 35 days after your due date. You can then make a reply to their brief, which is due 14 days after their due date.

Then, the appellate court can schedule oral arguments. They don't always, but if they do, each side argues its case in person before the three appellate judges assigned to the case.

After that, the appellate court sends out its decision.

This just sketches the basic outline. For anyone who hasn't done it before — lawyer or layperson — it can be bewildering. And treacherous. There are many ways to mess up, which can result in your appeal getting dismissed.

And even if you avoid procedural mistakes, so you get a decision, the odds are against getting a decision that reverses the trial court. Make sure you know what you're getting into.

John Roska is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.