Civil court appeals

In most civil cases, whether family court rulings, debt or employment claims, or commercial cases, the outcome is uncertain. This means the parties in a civil dispute are often anxious to know whether they can appeal if they lose the case.

If someone loses their case, they may then have to consider whether or not to appeal. An appeal is where the losing party asks the court to reconsider the ruling of the lower court – either in whole or in part.

Some appeals can be brought as of right because there is an automatic right to appeal. However, most decisions can be appealed only with the court’s permission. This is called ‘leave of the court’.

What is the civil appeals framework?

Rulings of county court district judges may be appealed to county court circuit judges, and if further appeal is required – to the Court of Appeal.

Initial rulings of the county court circuit judges are appealed to the High Court.

Initial rulings of the High Court are appealed to the Court of Appeal and, from there, to the Supreme Court. Appeals to the Supreme Court invariably need the permission of either the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court.

Appeals from the Upper Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal are heard by the Court of Appeal.

What are the time limits for bringing an appeal?

An appeal is started by filing an appeal notice which must be done within 21 days of the date of the decision of the lower court (unless the lower court has directed a different period in which to bring the appeal). Once an appeal notice has been filed, it must be served on each respondent as soon as practicable, and in any event, within seven days after being filed.

When is leave to appeal required?

With three minor exceptions, leave (permission) is required to bring an appeal. The exceptions where decisions may be appealed without permission are those from:

  • Committal orders;
  • A refusal to grant habeas corpus, and;
  • Secure accommodation orders under section 25 of the Children Act 1989.

The test that must be satisfied before permission is granted is whether the court considers the appeal would have a real prospect of success; or there is some other compelling reason why the appeal should be heard. For instance, an issue of law may need clarifying so permission to appeal is granted.

What’s the process of appealing?

Unless the appeal court orders otherwise, the appellant’s appeal notice must be served on any respondents (as stated above). Skeleton arguments are required for all civil appeals. A skeleton argument sets out the appellant’s case, and is the appellant’s opportunity to show the judges the merits of their case, using reasoned justification for asking the court to reconsider the initial ruling.

A copy of the appellant’s skeleton argument must be served at the same time as the appeal notice, unless this is impracticable (in which case it should be served within 14 days of filing the notice). Any other relevant documents must also be served on the respondent, for instance, a chronology of events.

Generally, no response is required from the respondent until permission is granted. The purpose of this is to ensure the respondent is informed of any landmarks in the appeal process.

Note that initiating an appeal does not have the automatic effect of staying execution on the judgment or order under appeal. You would need to make an application for a stay of judgment pending the appeal.

What happens at the hearing, and any appeal hearing?

There may not be a hearing, as the application can often be dealt with administratively instead. If leave is granted, an appeal hearing will be set. It is important to understand that an appeal is not a re-hearing, it is a review of the decision made.

In most cases, the appeal court will allow an appeal only where the decision of the lower court was wrong in law or on the facts; or it was seriously unjust because of a serious procedural or other irregularity in the proceedings in the lower court.

The court can either refuse the appeal, or uphold, set aside or vary the initial order or judgment, or even refer any claim or issue back to the lower court or tribunal. It can also order a new trial or hearing if necessary. In addition, the appeal court can make a costs order for payment of interest, and make costs orders.

Can fresh evidence be produced to the appeal court?

The appeal court can receive fresh evidence, but only if it is satisfied that such evidence:

  • Could not have been obtained with reasonable diligence for use at the hearing;
  • Would probably have an important influence on the result of the case, and;
  • Is apparently credible.

Where there is fresh evidence, a new trial could be ordered.