The Difference Between Trial Courts and Appellate Courts

Should a person have their case decided in a trial court and lose, they have a statutory right to file an appeal. It’s important to realize that by filing an appeal, a person won’t get to have their entire case retried at the appellate court.

The purpose of an appellate court is to review the case. They will determine if there is enough evidence to support the ruling made by the lower court. An appellate court also determines if the lower court, as well as the trial, applied the law correctly. There are fundamental differences between an appellate court and a trial court.

Major Differences

The job of an appellate court is to determine if the appealing party’s claim that the trial court made a legal mistake is valid. Appellate court judges are part of panels. They are required to confine their case review to the claim associated with the existing trial court record. There are three major differences between a trial-level court and appellate-level court:

  1.  Exhibits and Witnesses
  2. Judges
  3. Juries

Exhibits And Witnesses

A trial court is where a case begins. It is at the trial court where both sides will present evidence to prove their version of what occurred. A majority of the evidence presented in a trial court often comes from witnesses. They are individuals who will respond to questions about the case. Evidence is also presented with exhibits.

These are documents and other items associated with the case. They could include papers, pictures, weapons, clothes, and more. With an appellate court, there are no witnesses who provide any type of testimony and no evidence is presented. Appeal lawyers arguing a case in an appellate court will only be able to argue policy and legal issues before a panel of judges.

In a trial court, a lawyer presents their legal arguments and evidence to a jury if it is a jury trial. They will do the same thing before a judge if it is a bench trial.


In a trial court, there is going to be only one judge presiding over the case in the courtroom. This is the judge who determines if evidence can or can’t be used. This is something that could determine the outcome of a case.

In some appellate courts, the appeals are decided by more than one judge. In some court of appeals cases, there may be three or more judges.


A group of citizens who listen to facts and make decisions about a case is known as a jury. They are often used at a trial court to help with determining the outcome of a case. In a criminal trial, a jury will determine if a person is or is not guilty of the crime they have been charged with committing.

A criminal trial will involve the government acting in the role of prosecutor. In a civil trial, a jury will determine if a company or individual is liable for the accusations being made against them. Some of the most common types of civil cases involve car accidents, divorce, traffic violations, and more.

A civil or criminal trial will have a jury. There is no jury involved with the decisions of an appellate court. Appellate court judges are responsible for determining the results of all appeals.

Trial Preparation

At the trial level, a lawyer will work hard to obtain all applicable testimony and evidence for their case. This could include victim testimony, police reports, witness testimony, accident reports, financial records, medical records, and more.

Each side is given an opportunity to argue if certain evidence should be included or excluded from the trial. In the appellate court, all of the available evidence is provided as part of the record of the court. No new evidence is permitted to be submitted or collected. All of the oral and written arguments by appeal lawyers are based on what has previously happened in the trial court.

An appellate court can overrule a trial court’s decision. This will only be done if they determine that a serious legal error occurred during the trial. It is possible for appellate court judges to believe a trial court’s decision should have been different. If they are unable to determine that any legal errors occurred, they will not be able to overrule the lower court’s decision.

The judges in the appellate court are only able to make decisions based on the legal arguments from both sides on how the law should have been interpreted and applied during the trial.

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