When Attorneys Show Up At Small Claims Court

By Laura Melton Tucker, March 29th, 2009

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Several times a month I volunteer as a mediator at our local courthouse. Small claims mediation is always voluntary, confidential, more informal than the courtroom, and frequently leads to an agreement fashioned by the people involved in the dispute. Most mediation participants leave satisfied with the process. The other day, however, the defendant in a case expressed surprise when he arrived at court to find not the person he expected, but instead an attorney dressed in a three piece suit. The defendant took his seat at the mediation table and leaned in to ask, “Since when do they let attorneys into small claims court?” I didn’t have an answer for him, so I decided to dig into the question on my own. I was surprised by what I found.

Iowa is one of 38 states that allow lawyers into small claims court. There are some states, however, that acknowledge that one side showing up in court with an attorney could be intimidating to the other. For this reason, they stipulate that if one side has representation, the other can too. In Arizona, both parties have to agree in writing ahead of time that a lawyer can be present. In other states, including Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Oregon and Washington, the general rule of thumb is that lawyers aren’t welcome, unless the party seeking representation gets the consent of the judge. In Wyoming the rule is that if someone shows up with an attorney, the other side may ask for a continuance (delay) to return with an attorney of their own. There are six states that have issued a flat no to lawyers in small claims court; these include Arkansas, California, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska and Virginia.

Another factor that sets state courts apart is the dollar limit that a plaintiff may seek in a claim. In Iowa claims are limited to $5,000. This seems to be a relatively standard limit…sixteen other states also cap claims at $5,000. Some states limit claims to a low of $1,500 (Kentucky) and a high of $25,000 in metropolitan parts of Tennessee. (If you live in one of Tennessee’s rural areas, your limit is $15,000). Interestingly, in South Carolina, landlord dispute claims can be filed for an unlimited amount of money. All other small claims cases in the state are limited to $7,500.

So, what’s the takeaway from this? States have autonomy in determining how their small claims court works. Remember that hiring a lawyer may cost more than the amount of your claim. On the other hand, consulting a lawyer ahead of time may give you clarity in how to make your best case. Even with attorneys potentially joining you at the mediation table, small claims court is user friendly. That’s why it’s called the people’s court.

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