There comes a time in all our lives when we receive some kind of official pronouncement that we disagree with. Being rejected for a licence or permit. Being told that we don’t have the rights we thought we had. Losing in a civil money dispute, in family court, or even at a trial for a criminal or regulatory offence.
We might find the result hurtful and unjust. We might be outraged. And we might remain firm in our convictions over the justness of our cause!
Some will just swallow the defeat and move on. But others will want to continue the fight.
Most of the world’s legal systems have created fairness check mechanisms on first level decisions, regardless of who is making the decision or what subject the decision relates to. The buck almost never stops with the government desk officer, the hearing tribunal, or the trial judge. At least one level of appeal of an adverse decision is almost always possible if you look hard enough for an appeal route.
A psychologist could probably give you a helpful take on the emotional toll that fighting on entails, and what kind of person is more likely to continue to fight rather than throw in the towel. But my professional focus is solely on whether and how the continued fight can be won.
In the over two decades I’ve been helping clients with appeals (and watching others by necessity or choice represent themselves), I’ve seen lots of missed opportunities for winning appeals because of deadly but completely avoidable mistakes that people make shortly after receiving that decision they want desperately to overturn. Here are a Canadian appellate lawyer’s insider tips for five things you should never do (and I frequently see done again and again) if you want to continue the good fight, which should help you out regardless of where you live.
1. BE LATE TO THE PARTY. It doesn't matter how great your arguments might be; if you're late on an appeal, you're almost always out of luck. And some appeal filing periods can be crazy short. Like 7 days from the decision. Usually you've got 30 days; occasionally as long as 90 days. In that time, you’ll need to find a lawyer (or figure out the process yourself), get a copy of the decision and the materials that were reviewed in making it (you might need to order transcripts or request government records), draft plausible grounds for appeal, track down the responding party to serve the appeal notice on, and file the notice with the office, tribunal or court hearing the appeal.
2. GET LOST FINDING THE PARTY. There are more places out there to appeal to than you might expect. In federations like Canada or the U.S., you need to figure out if you’re going to a provincial, state or federal appeal body. You might also need to determine if you’ve got a final order or interlocutory (interim) order, as believe it or not their respective appeals might go to different places. After being late, appealing to the wrong place is probably the most common completely avoidable reason for failed appeals. I’ve seen enough lawyers get the appeal route wrong. Sometimes, even the courts themselves disagree over which one of them should be hearing an appeal!
3. THINK IT'S SIMPLY ANOTHER KICK AT THE SAME CAN. The time to make your best pitch is with the first instance official, tribunal or court. Appeal bodies love the word “deference” to lower officials, and will liberally use that word against you if you don’t give them very good reasons why they should overturn a lower decision. You can’t usually appeal errors of fact, only errors of law (though it’s possible to turn big enough factual errors into errors of law). So it’s deadly to try to appeal on the basis that you think a decision is merely wrong, stupid, or misguided. Even if the person you’re appealing to is inclined to agree with you, she can’t simply substitute her own decision for the decision of the lower official. There has to be some kind of significant legal error you point out that is worth interfering with.
4. ASSUME YOU'VE GOT AN EVEN SHOT. Casino gamblers and appeal gamblers both sometimes suffer from magical thinking on odds not rooted in reality. And while its easy to get stats on roulette with a double zero having a 5.26% house edge, it’s a lot more difficult to pin down precise odds on appeals. They’re definitely less than 50-50. Your best shot at winning is always at first instance - when you originally submit that government form or appear before that tribunal or trial court - not on appeal. In Canada, the odds of getting some kind of remedy out of an appeal are probably somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 4, based on available appellate court data. If the stakes are high, those aren't such bad odds. But if you're fighting about a minor issue, you need to reflect on whether the financial and emotional cost is really worth it.
5. ONLY MAKE ONE ARGUMENT. You might think you've found that one killer, slam dunk argument for an appeal. The one that no one could reject. But not everyone sees the world as you do. So even if a reviewer has sympathy for your cause, she may not buy your one argument wonder. Come up with more. I often come up with a dozen or more possibly viable grounds of appeal for clients. Sometimes we whittle that number down a bit for the actual appeal argument, but which of those arguments appeal officers and judges seize on as the winning strong argument continues to surprise me, so it never pays to limit your arguments other than eliminating the ones that stand no chance of success.
To read more, see my appeals law blog.