SELF [PRO SE] REPRESENTATION [WHEN CAN I REPRESENT MYSELF?]
Whether a person can or should represent themselves depends mainly on the type of case that is filed. In a Municipal Court there are two divisions of the court, the Small Claim Division and the General or Regular Division. If a case is filed in the Small Claim Division most persons will represent themselves. In the General or Regular Division it is almost always advisable not to represent yourself.
SMALL CLAIM DIVISION
The law provides a separate division of the court for claims that do not exceed $3,000.00 so that persons can represent themselves without having to hire an attorney. The cost of an attorney to pursue or defend smaller amounts in many cases does not make it worthwhile to incur the expense of an attorney.
There are advantages and disadvantages of filing a claim in the Small Claim Division. One of the advantages is that the formal rules of evidence that must be followed in the General or Regular Division do not apply to a Small Claim proceeding. For example, hearsay [what someone not a party to the proceeding who may or may not be a witness at the hearing] cannot be used to prove or disprove a claim in the General or Regular Division but is permitted in the Small Claim Division. The formalities of questions and answers in a proper form to witnesses do not apply in the Small Claim Division. And, unlike the General or Regular Division, the judge or magistrate [an attorney appointed by the judge to hear the case] is permitted and encouraged to ask questions and assist the parties in presenting the important information that is needed to make a fair decision.
Persons totally unfamiliar with legal proceedings or who do not feel comfortable speaking in public may be at a disadvantage if the opposing party is knowledgeable or familiar with the legal process. Sometimes if a person is emotional regarding the subject matter of the dispute they may not be able to communicate the important facts to the court to help the court make a fair decision.
REGULAR OR GENERAL DIVISION
In most cases it is unwise and risky for a person to represent themselves in the Regular or General Division of the court. These types of case include cases where the amount in dispute is over $3,000.00 and eviction actions. Sometimes the claim may be under $3,000.00 and the person filing the claim may choose to file the case in the Regular or General Division and not in the Small Claim Division.
The Ohio Supreme Court has determined that whether a person is an attorney or not that every person participating in a case in the Regular or General Division must follow the same rules that an attorney must follow. Unless you are familiar with court proceedings and have some training or background in the law you will be at a great disadvantage. Representing yourself in the Regular or General Division can be very frustrating both for you and the court. The judge is not permitted to assist you as in the Small Claim Division and although the judge may give you some leeway in presenting your case the judge has to be careful not to become your advocate.
RULES FOR CORPORATIONS AND LLCS
Many persons have incorporated or formed limited liability companies either upon advice of an attorney or information gathered from other sources. While there are many advantages to forming these entities one of the disadvantages is that the law has certain rules as to when a shareholder or owner of an entity may file lawsuits and make appearances on behalf of the entity.
It is against the law for a person to practice law without a license. The Supreme Court of Ohio makes the rules as to what constitutes the practice of law.
- The general rule is that no person who is not an attorney can sign and file any pleading on behalf of a corporation or limited liability company. This includes officers and employees who are not licensed attorneys. (SEE EXCEPTION FOR SMALL CLAIMS CASES BELOW)
- A manager of an apartment or other rental unit cannot sign and file an eviction action or appear by themselves in court on behalf of the landlord or owner of the property unless they are licensed to practice law. See Cleveland Bar Association v. Picklo 96 Ohio St. 3d 195, 2002-Ohio-3995.
- There are exceptions for SMALL CLAIMS COURT ONLY. Small Claims Court does not include evictions. The rules for filing Small Claims Complaints on behalf of a corporation, partnership, limited liability company or other business are as follows:
- If the business is incorporated or is a limited liability company then an officer must sign the Small Claims Petition.
- If the business is a sole proprietorship or a partnership then an owner must sign the Small Claims Petition.
- Anyone can physically file a Small Claims Petition that has been properly signed by an officer or owner (or a properly completed Small Claims Petition can be mailed with the appropriate filing fee).
- The business may send any person it wishes to be a witness at the Small Claims Hearing (e.g. officer, owner, office manager, accounts receivable clerk etc.) The person can be a fact witness and testify to facts and present exhibits in support of the claim but cannot ask questions of any other witness. See Cleveland Bar Association v. Pearlman 106 Ohio St.3d 136, 832 N.E.2d 1193, 2005 -Ohio- 4107