The banging of a gavel usually symbolizes the end of a court case. When the gavel hits, those involved leave the courtroom and begin to move on with their lives. Judgment has been rendered and it is considered by most people to be final. To some, however, a gavel and the judgment that follows are not the last word. Often, those who have received what they later decide (or learn) is an unsatisfactory result may file an appeal, which is the process that involves a court of higher authority reviewing what went on in the trial court and then deciding if the evidence supports the decision the judge made, or if the judge made any legal errors. That tends to be a very expensive process, however, and it is a process very few parties can afford.
If a party cannot afford an appeal, however, there may still be options available. Under certain limited circumstances an unhappy litigant can ask to have the judgment set aside. If a judgment can be set aside, the orders associated with it, such as payment, custody, even dissolution of the marital status will also be set aside. This makes setting aside judgment particularly appealing to those in divorce cases who wish to avoid paying child support or wish to regain custody of their children by taking a “second bite at the apple.”
Typically, the judgments that are sought to be set aside in this fashion are those that are entered into by the parties as an agreement, what is called a “stipulated judgment.” After making the agreement, however, circumstances may arise that gives one of the parties reason to feel they “got a raw deal,” a dynamic sometimes referred to as “buyer’s remorse.” Once they feel this way they then want to try to get the judgment set aside so they can have a “re-do;” they want to go back into court and start over. Parties of this mindset will claim many things to support their desire to set the judgment aside, include lawyer error, their own mistake, duress, the other’s party’s fraud and things of this nature.
In order to have judgment set aside, those who are unsatisfied with the decision they made when entering into an agreed-upon judgment can claim that it was arrived at through mistake, inadvertence, or excusable neglect. A mistake occurs when a detail in the case was incorrect, either factually or legally and one (or sometimes both) of the parties was unaware of that mistake when entering onto the agreement.
Judgments can also be set aside if they are seen as resulting from inadvertence. This condition means that someone involved in the case was placed in a negative situation that occurred by surprise through no fault of his or her own.
A third approach to setting aside a judgment focuses on what is called “excusable neglect.” In this category, one side is excused from not having taken action in a case because of legitimate factors that make their neglect “excusable;” that is, they were neglectful, technically, but it was the kind of neglect that should be excused because it would be unreasonable to do otherwise. As can be imagined this leaves a lot of room for argument. An example might be a failure to fully understand English or being physically unable to attend court. This situation, however, must be seen as excusable, as being the kind of mistake a “reasonable person” might make for it to be grounds for setting aside a judgment
Mistake, inadvertence, or excusable neglect can all serve as legitimate bases for setting aside a judgment. Whether a judgment is actually set aside, though, remains entirely up to the court. Before seeking to set aside a judgment, it is best to consult with an attorney familiar with that process; it is often very complicated and detailed and the stakes are usually high enough to elicit a vigorous opposition from the other side