During a typical trial, lawyers present arguments and offer evidence to a judge, who makes a decision resolving the matter. This decision is usually written in a formal opinion. There are several parts to most opinions: a statement of the facts; an application of the relevant law; and a legal judgment. The judgment is the official decision of the court, and is usually no more than a paragraph in length. It is different from a sentencing order or punishment, as the function of the judgment is not to set a penalty, but to resolve the dispute by determining which party should prevail, or win.
A legal judgment, sometimes written judgment in the United Kingdom, is a court outcome. There are several different kinds of judgment orders that a court can issue, but all center on one thing: finality. A judge uses a legal judgment to make a declaration about how the law applies, what should happen next, or how an issue should be resolved.
One of the most common forms of legal judgment is summary judgment. Parties move for summary judgment before a trial begins by arguing that the facts are clear enough for a legal judgment to be reached without the time and expense of a courtroom appearance. If a judge grants a summary judgment motion, the case is dismissed unless and until the judgment is appealed.
When one party fails to appear before the court or does not respond to court-ordered instructions, the court may enter a legal judgment known as a default judgment. A default judgment finds in favor of the party that did appear, but it is not a judgment based on law. Most default judgment orders do not address how the law applies to the facts at hand, as their purpose is merely to penalize the party in default.
Courts in some circumstances will also issue a legal decision known as a declaratory judgment. This is a legal judgment issued in anticipation of trial, but it usually precedes trial: courts write declaratory judgments to settle rights or establish how the law would apply to a certain set of facts, if tried. Most of the time, declaratory judgments are only issued based on party request and judicial discretion. They are usually binding, but cannot order any specific action. In many respects, a declaratory judgment bears much resemblance to an agency or government-issued policy judgment.
All legal judgments can usually be appealed on grounds of judicial mistake, changed law, procedural error, or other areas. Appealing a court decision usually happens in the same tribunal until the court issues a final judgment. A final judgment is a legal judgment that can only be appealed to higher tribunals, usually courts of appeals.
Legal judgments represent and memorialize the law's application to facts. Most court systems allow final judgments to be appealed almost without limitless, but only so long as the parties have grounds or can point to specific reasons why the judgment was wrong. That a party found the judgment unfavorable is not usually sufficient.