In March, 1997, the Georgia Court of Appeals in the case of Eckles v. Atlanta Technology Group, Inc. held in part that corporations could no longer be represented by non-lawyers in any court in the State of Georgia. In April, 1997, the Georgia Supreme Court partially reversed the Court of Appeals. In its reversal, the Georgia Supreme Court held that non-lawyers may represent corporations in magistrate court, administrative tribunals and most city and municipal courts, but non-lawyers may not represent corporations in state or superior courts.
In reaching its decision, the Georgia Supreme Court found that since a corporation is an artificial person, it can only act through its agents. For this reason, the Court held that it has long been recognized by the courts of other jurisdictions that a corporation can appear only by an attorney, while a natural person may appear for himself.
The Supreme Court limited its ruling by making an exception to the above general rule by stating that most states allow layman to serve as a corporation’s legal representative in proceedings before the court which are not of record (magistrate court). The rationale for this exception is that those problems which are likely to arise when a layman serves as the legal representative for a corporation in a proceeding in a court of record (state or superior court) are greatly minimized in the more informal setting of a proceeding in a court which is not of record (magistrate court).
In agreeing with the Georgia Court of Appeals’ general ruling prohibiting representation of corporations by non-lawyers in courts of record, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded that to permit a corporation to be represented by a layman in a court of record would constitute a major exception to the requirement that a legal representative be a licensed attorney, who is subject to the authority of the courts of which he or she is an officer. The court went on to state there appears to be no reason why the prohibition against legal representation by a layman in a court of record should not apply when the party represented is a corporation rather than a natural person. Natural persons with no license to practice law are not permitted to act as attorneys and represent other natural persons in their legal affairs. Likewise, non-attorney agents are not allowed to represent corporations in litigation, for a wholly unintended exception to the rules against the unauthorized practice of law.
The Georgia Supreme Court further stated that corporations having accepted the benefits of incorporation must also accept the burdens including the need to hire counsel to sue or defend it in courts of record. It is the responsibility of this court to provide effective standards for admission to the practice of law and for the discipline of those admitted to practice. Litigation must be projected through the courts according to established practice by lawyers who are of high character, skilled in the profession, dedicated to the interests of their clients, and in the spirit of public service. In the orderly process of the administration of justice, any retreat from those principals would be a disservice to the public. To allow a corporation to maintain litigation and appear in court represented by corporate officers or agents only would lay open the gates to the practice of law for entry to those corporate officers or agents who have been qualified to practice law and who are not amenable to the general discipline of the court. Thus, the Georgia Supreme Court appears to be taking the position that proper control of the courts requires the prohibition of non-lawyers in corporate representation. One must wonder why the court has not been concerned about this issue until now.
In this article, I have attempted to provide as much language from the Georgia Supreme Court’s ruling as possible to more exactly report the court’s ruling. The final conclusion of the Eckles case is that corporate officers and agents may represent the corporation in court not of record such as magistrate court, administrative courts, and city/municipal courts, but corporate officers and agents may not represent the corporation in courts of record such as state court and superior court.
Mr. Busch is an attorney specializing in commercial and construction litigation for Busch, Reed, Jones & Leeper, P.C. in Marietta, Georgia