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Trial Court vs. Appellate Court: What's the Difference?

Edited by Janet White || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 16, 2023
A trial court hears cases and examines evidence to determine facts; an appellate court reviews the trial court's decisions for legal errors.

Key Differences

A trial court, as the name suggests, is where trials are held and lawsuits are initiated. It's the court where litigants present evidence and witnesses to make their case. In contrast, an appellate court is a higher court that reviews the decisions made by trial courts to ensure legal correctness. These courts don't reconsider facts but focus on ensuring the law was correctly applied.
Trial courts are the foundation of the judicial process, operating as the first point of interaction for plaintiffs and defendants. Here, both parties present their case, produce evidence, and witness testimonies. Appellate courts, on the other hand, function as a review mechanism. They determine if the trial court erred in its interpretation or application of the law, without re-examining evidence or hearing new testimonies.
In the trial court, a jury or judge determines the facts of the case based on the evidence presented. The outcome is a result of this fact-finding process. However, in the appellate court, panels of judges review the procedures and decisions of the trial court. Their role is to ensure that legal standards were maintained and that the law was interpreted correctly.
The trial court's decisions are primarily based on the facts of the case, while appellate court decisions revolve around the application of legal principles. If someone is dissatisfied with a trial court's ruling, they can appeal to the appellate court, seeking a revision or reversal of the decision. However, the appellate court doesn't provide a new trial; it only reviews the previous trial's proceedings.

Comparison Chart

Primary Function

Hears cases and determines facts
Reviews trial court decisions for legal errors

Evidence and Testimonies

Presented and examined
Not re-examined; no new evidence presented

Decision Basis

Facts of the case
Interpretation and application of law

Nature of Proceedings


Type of Judges

Typically one judge presides
Typically a panel of judges

Trial Court and Appellate Court Definitions

Trial Court

The first level of the court system where legal controversies are resolved.
The trial court's verdict was unexpected and caused a stir in the media.

Appellate Court

A court that reviews and evaluates the decisions of trial courts.
The defendant appealed the verdict, sending the case to the appellate court.

Trial Court

A legal institution where disputes are initially adjudicated.
The plaintiff decided to file his lawsuit in the local trial court.

Appellate Court

A higher-level court focusing on the legal interpretation of trial court decisions.
The appellate court overturned the ruling, citing procedural errors.

Trial Court

The forum for hearings, where judgements are rendered based on facts.
After months of proceedings, the trial court finally reached a decision.

Appellate Court

A court specializing in addressing alleged errors in trial court proceedings.
Many see the appellate court as a safeguard against potential miscarriages of justice.

Trial Court

A court where cases begin and facts are determined.
The trial court found the defendant guilty based on the evidence presented.

Appellate Court

A judicial body that ensures the proper application of law in lower courts.
Lawyers often cite previous appellate court decisions as legal precedents.

Trial Court

The judicial arena where litigants present evidence and witnesses.
She was summoned to testify at the trial court next month.

Appellate Court

The court that examines if legal standards were maintained in trial courts.
The appellate court's decision will provide clarity on the contested legal issue.


What's the main function of a trial court?

A trial court's main function is to hear cases and determine facts.

Is it guaranteed that an appellate court will hear every appeal?

No, appellate courts have discretion on which appeals to hear.

Can litigants present new evidence in appellate courts?

No, appellate courts don't consider new evidence or testimonies.

What's the next step if one disagrees with a trial court's decision?

They can appeal the decision to an appellate court.

Do appellate courts conduct new trials?

No, appellate courts review trial court proceedings without conducting new trials.

Which court is the first point of contact in the judicial process?

The trial court is typically the first point of contact.

Can the decision of an appellate court be further appealed?

Yes, often to a higher appellate court or a supreme court.

Does a trial court decision have immediate effect?

Generally, yes, unless a stay is granted pending an appeal.

Which court has broader jurisdiction, trial or appellate?

Trial courts generally have broader jurisdiction over a range of cases.

How long does it take for an appellate court to review a case?

It varies, but appellate reviews can take several months to years.

Are appellate court decisions binding?

They can set precedents that are binding for lower courts in the same jurisdiction.

How many judges are typically in an appellate court panel?

Appellate court panels often consist of three or more judges.

What happens if an appellate court finds a legal error in the trial court's decision?

The appellate court can reverse, remand, or modify the decision.

What does an appellate court primarily do?

An appellate court reviews the decisions of trial courts for legal errors.

Who determines the facts in a trial court?

The facts are determined by a jury or a judge in a trial court.

Can a trial court's decision be reversed?

Yes, by an appellate court upon review.

Are jury trials common in appellate courts?

No, appellate courts don't use juries and focus on legal review.

Can one directly file a case in an appellate court?

No, cases typically reach appellate courts through appeals from trial courts.

Are trial court decisions published?

Not always, but appellate court decisions are often published as they set legal precedents.

Do litigants need to be present during appellate court proceedings?

No, appellate courts typically review records without requiring litigants' presence.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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