Appealing a Small Claims Court Case

The legal skinny on whether -- and when -- you can appeal your small claims case.

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If you are unhappy with the outcome of your small claims court trial, you usually have the right to file an appeal.

How Much Time Do I Have to Appeal?

Many states allow either party to appeal a small claims court decision within a short period of time, usually between 10 and 30 days. In some states, appeals must be based solely on the contention that the judge made a legal mistake, and not on the facts of the case.

Other states have their own unique rules. In California, for example, a defendant may appeal a small claims court decision to the Superior Court within 30 days and receive a new trial -- in which the judge addresses both the law and the facts of the case. And except in very limited circumstances, a plaintiff may not appeal at all.

Should I Hire an Attorney?

You are entitled to have an attorney in formal court, where small claims court appeals are heard. But because by definition your small claims case is not worth big bucks, you will probably decide it is not wise to hire one. But what if your opponent hires a lawyer? Aren't you at a disadvantage if you represent yourself? Not necessarily. In many states, the appeals court must follow informal rules, similar to those used in small claims court. This places you on a relatively equal footing with your opponent, even if your opponent has a lawyer.

If you still feel a little intimidated, the best cure is to go to the courthouse and watch a few small claims appeals. Ask the court clerk when they are scheduled. Because some states follow formal court rules for small claims appeals, you really do want to be prepared.

Jury Trial Note: A few states, including North Carolina and Virginia, permit jury trials on appeals of small claims court decision. Most states don't. Check with your county court clerk.

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