Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Family Law Appeals

People who lose trials are often very eager to appeal, and hope that a three-judge appellate panel that reviews the case will change the result, or at least send the matter back for a re-trial. Family law appeals are hard to win, and easy to lose.  Here is why:

Family law trials are "bench trials" in Washington.  That means that the judge determines the facts as well as the law. In most other kinds of cases, the judge still determines the law, but the jury finds the facts.  ("Finds the facts," means that in a he said/she said dispute, the "fact finder" determines whose story, or what mix of each story, becomes "legally true," for that case, and the law is applied to those "legal facts.")

How does this all matter for family law?  The appellate judges prefer "finality" in family law cases so that you can all move on with your lives.  Therefore, the appellate courts will not substitute their judgment for the trial judge.  Instead, your appeal can only be won: (a) if the judge made an error of law (the appellate court does not "defer" to an error of law), or (b) if the decision lacked "substantial evidence" (meaning that there was so little evidence in support of the judge's determination that no reasonable person could have found those facts -- here the appellate court defers to the trial court), or (c) if the result was overall manifestly unreasonable.

As you can see, on the facts and on the judgment of overall fairness, the trial court has a lot of leeway and the court of appeals will not re-examine any reasonable decision.  However, if there were legal errors, they will be reviewed carefully, and the matter will be sent back to the trial court for more fact-finding and more legal argument.

Here at Mason Law in Spokane, WA, Craig Mason has successfully appealed family law cases, and has successfully defended trial court decisions on appeal. Keeping in mind the high bar to jump if you decide to appeal your family law decision, or if you need to defend a positive decision from an appeal, feel free to contact Mason Law at 509-443-3681.