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Many people assume that no lawyers are ever allowed in a small claims court, and that decisions in such courts are always unreviewable (final) because of their informal nature. Is this true in all US states? In Any?

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    As the answers below illustrate this is not a matter upon which there are uniform laws in every state in the U.S.; rules differ from state to state and not every state even has a small claims court. – ohwilleke Feb 25 at 0:21
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    Of course. My point is that many people seem to think that there are such uniform rules, or that the rules from their own state apply everywhere. I have seen this in answers here on Law SE, which is what prompted me to make this a Q&A. – David Siegel Feb 25 at 0:26
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Many US states allow a business sued in small claims court to be represented by a lawyer. Some allow any party to have a lawyer. Several do allow appeals from small claims cases.

Some examples:

California

According to a Californians official page

In most situations, parties to a small claims action must represent themselves. As a general rule, attorneys or non-attorney representatives (such as debt collection agencies or insurance companies) may not represent you in small claims court.

Cases where an entity may be represented by an employee in CA:

  • A corporation or other legal entity (that is not a natural person) can be represented by a regular employee, an officer, or a director; a partnership can be represented by a partner or regular employee of the partnership. The representative may not be an attorney or person whose only job is to represent the party in small claims court. An attorney may appear to represent a law firms as long as that attorney is a general partner of the law firm or is an officer of the corporation. However, in both instances, all the other members of the partnership and all the other officers of the corporations have to be attorneys as well.

  • A property agent may represent the owner of rental property if the property agent was hired principally to manage the rental of that property and not principally to represent the property owner in small claims court and the claim relates to the rental property.

  • In a case in which a claim can be proved or disputed by evidence of an account that constitutes a business record, and there is no other issue in the case, a sole proprietorship (such as a physician) can be represented by a regular employee who is employed for purposes other than solely representing the proprietor in small claims court actions, and who is qualified to testify to the identity and mode of preparation of the business record.

Cases where a person may be represented by another person in CA:

  • A non-resident owner of real property located in California may defend a small claims case related to the property by submitting a declaration or sending a representative.

*A person who is on active duty in the military service outside California, or who while on active duty is transferred out of state for more than six months after the claim arose, may be represented by a non-attorney, and may submit declarations in support of his or her claim or defense.

  • A person who is in jail or prison may be represented by someone who isn’t an attorney, and may file written declarations in support of his or her claim or defense.

  • Some courts will allow a non-resident driver involved in an in-state auto accident to send a representative (but never an attorney), submit evidence by declaration, and appear in court by telephone. Contact a small claims adviser in the county where you’re sued to learn about the procedures used in that county.

  • Spouses may represent each other in small claims court if they have a joint interest in the claim or defense, and the represented spouse has given his or her consent.

According to this linked official page:

Only the person against whom a claim is made may appeal a small claims court judgment. The party who files a claim in small claims court (the plaintiff) can't appeal the judge's decision on that claim. For that party, the court's judgment is final. Similarly, if the defendant files a claim against the plaintiff, the defendant may not appeal the court's ruling on the defendant's claim. Only the plaintiff can appeal a decision on a claim filed by the defendant.

This must be done

within 30 days after the judgment is delivered or handed to the parties in court or, if the decision is mailed, within 30 days after the date the clerk mails the Notice of Entry of Judgment

A plaintiff or defendant also has the right to invite but not require the small claims court to re-examine its decision. ... While the defendant is the only party with a right to file an appeal, either party, whether plaintiff or defendant, may request the small claims court to correct "a clerical error in the judgment" or vacate a judgment and re-hear the dispute "on the grounds of an incorrect or erroneous legal basis for the decision."

This also has a 30-day time limit, and the limit for filing an appeal runs at the same time, and is not extended by a request for reconsideration.

The appealing party is entitled to a new hearing before a different judge of the superior court. The plaintiff's claim and any claim filed by the defendant are heard together, as in small claims court. That means that the parties must present their cases as if they were being presented for the first time. The results of the first hearing, and the testimony and other evidence offered at that hearing, are not considered by the second judge who hears the case.

The judge who hears the appeal conducts the re-hearing in the same informal way that cases are heard in small claims court. The only exception is that an attorney may represent a party at the hearing on appeal. The judge who presides at the hearing on appeal allows the parties' attorneys to present evidence and examine witnesses under the judge's guidance and control.

Maryland

Maryland's rules say:

You MAY have a lawyer represent you. You will need to pay for your own lawyer.

and

If you want to appeal, the case will be retried in the Circuit Court. You will have to present all your evidence and testimony again.

South Carolina

In South Carolina small claims (up to $7,500) are heard in the Magistrate's Court. This court allows parties to be represented by lawyers. This court allows a jury trial at the request of either party, in writing, more than 5 days before the trial date. Appeals to the Circuit Court of Common Pleas from small claims cases are possible.

New York

According to This NY State Small Claims Handbook

Lawyers:

You do not need a lawyer to sue in Small Claims Court. But you may hire one, if you want. The other side may also hire a lawyer. ... A corporation or LLC does not need a lawyer when it is sued in Small Claims Court. An authorized officer, director, or employee can come to court to defend the case.

In the case of Commercial small claims (claims filed by a business) either party may be represented by a lawyer.

Jury:

Small claims cases decided by an arbitrator or mediator do not have juries. Small claims cases decided by a judge do not have juries unless the defendant demands it.

Appeals:

  • If the Court ordered a default judgment: The person who didn’t come to Court may ask to open the case again if s/he has a valid defense and a good reason for not coming to the trial.

  • If your case was decided by mandatory arbitration: Any party who is not in default has 35 days from the date of the mailing of the arbitrator’s award to ask the court for a new trial before a judge. This is called a trial de novo.

(If arbitration is an option and is chosen, no appeal is permitted.)

  • If your case was decided by a judge: You can ask a higher court to review your case. This is called an “appeal.” You can’t appeal a default judgment. Very few small claims decisions are appealed, and very few appeals are successful. The higher Court will only decide if there was substantial justice between the parties. That means deciding if the trial was basically fair. The higher Court will not change a small claims decision because of a technical mistake made at trial

An appeal must be requested within 30 days.

Other resources

Nolo Press's Overview of Small Claims Rules links to information pages about the rules of small claims for a number of US states. In any case, you should check the rules for your own state (or country if not in the US), which are probably on line.

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In Colorado, a plaintiff may not be represented by counsel in small claims court and if a defendant elected to be represented by counsel when sued in small claims court, the case is transferred to the ordinary civil division of the limited jurisdiction county court where either party may now be represented by counsel, but small claims procedural rules are still applied. Colorado also allows entities to be represented by managers or officers in small claims court, but not in any other court.

decisions in such courts are always unrecoverable because of their informal nature.

This is false.

Enforcing judgments

Judgments in small claims court are enforced by procedures largely indistinguishable from any other money judgment in almost ever state that has such courts.

Appeals

Judgments in small claims court can also almost always be appealed by at least one of the parties.

A proceeding in which neither party can appeal is usually called an "arbitration" and is usually conducted by a private arbitrator, rather than by a judge acting within the court system. Usually you can only be compelled to arbitrate a dispute if you contractually agree to do so, either before or after the dispute arises, although there is no constitutional right to an direct appeal of a court ruling in the United States in either a civil or a criminal action; the right to an appeal is strictly a product of state constitutions, statutes and court rules. In a criminal action, the only constitutional right you have to further review of a conviction under the United States Constitution is the right to bring a writ of habeas corpus. Direct appeals of criminal cases did not exist in the federal courts of the United States until the 1890s and appeals from habeas corpus petition denials were technically speaking appeals of a civil case, rather than a criminal one.

In many states, small claims courts are not "courts of record" so the appeal is done by holding a trial de novo in the court to which appeals from small claims court are made by statute (this is what is done, for example, in Maryland and California). But, in California only people defending claims to appeal a decision in this way; people who choose to bring a claim in small claims court are not allowed to appeal the ruling.

In other states, small claims courts are "courts of record" so appeals are done based upon the small claims court trial record (typically via a transcript of an audiotape of the trial accompanied by copies of any exhibits introduced at trial); this is what is done, for example, in Colorado and New York.

  • I meant to write 'unreviewable' -- I was concerned with possible appeals, not with collection. This was my error, I apologize. – David Siegel Feb 24 at 21:41
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    @DavidSiegel No problem. Answered it both ways. – ohwilleke Feb 24 at 23:27

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