I often get asked whether a lawyer is necessary in small claims court. The short answer to this is “no.” Both individuals and businesses can represent themselves in small claims court in North Carolina. However, there are a number of benefits to having a lawyer represent you in small claims court. Notwithstanding the benefits, the obvious downside is that the amount in controversy will be relatively small, so having an attorney may not be cost effective. An attorney’s fee provision in your contract is important in order to help justify the use of an attorney for small claims matters.
Technically, the rules of evidence apply to small claims actions in North Carolina. I say “technically” because in my experience, particularly with pro se litigants, magistrates in North Carolina relax the rules of evidence for issues such as hearsay, relevance, and authentication. A lawyer can attempt to enforce the rules of evidence. I have done so in small claims court with varied levels of success. Regardless of whether the rules of evidence apply, a lawyer, who has been trained on how to present a case to the court, can generally help their client succeed in a small claims action by presenting facts which are necessary to support claims or defenses.
Small claims matters are generally are narrowly focused. Examples of small claims matters are complaints for summary ejectment (evictions), a suit to recover personal property, or a complaint for money owed. In each of these matters, the magistrate is examining a set of facts to determine whether the specific elements have been met. It is possible for a lawyer who truly understands those elements of the pending claim to either prove your case, or prove to the court that a key element is missing, thus successfully defending you.
My favorite tool when defending against a small claims action is to locate a procedural defect in the complaint (often prepared by a non-lawyer) and argue that this procedural defect should result in dismissal. This is an effective way for a lawyer to defend a small claims action without spending a tremendous amount of time and money getting bogged down in the facts. Not every case will have a procedural flaw, but for those that do, this is the most sure-fire way to win.
Even if a procedural defect exists resulting in dismissal of a small claims action, the Plaintiff can still appeal the matter to District Court. With respect to the first question presented in this article (Do I need a lawyer?) the answer changes if a matter is appealed to District Court. In District Court, a business is not allowed to represent itself unless the owner or business representative happens to be a North Carolina Licensed attorney. So, a business needs a lawyer on appeal. An individual can still represent themself in District Court, but the rules of evidence and civil procedure are much more strenuously observed in District Court. Thus, it is advisable for an individual to also hire a lawyer if a small claims matter is appealed to District Court.
If you have questions about whether a lawyer would add value to you in your small claims matter, one of the lawyers at Vann Attorneys would be happy to review your case and let you know whether we feel like we can help in a cost effective way.