Four years since it was originally piloted, the Legal Aid Agency’s multi-million pound Client and Cost Management System remains seriously flawed. Catherine Baksi investigates.
The problem is that the LAA built a chassis for a Mini and then put a double-decker bus on top of it, which is why the wheels keep falling off. It was never designed to cope with the plethora of remuneration schemes that make up civil certificated legal aid billing.
Branded by satirical magazine Private Eye as the ‘piss poor’ online application and payment system, practitioners report that the Client and Cost Management System (CCMS) regularly crashes or freezes, takes at least three times longer to complete than the paper method and is simply not fit for purpose.
Lawyers claim that the delays in processing legal aid applications have led to evictions and adjourned court hearings, and left children exposed to risk of serious harm. Representative groups warn that the system is the straw to break the camel’s back and is driving lawyers out of legal aid.
Adding insult to injury, the Legal Aid Agency’s (LAA’s) Digital Capability Team, responsible for training its staff to operate CCMS, received the skills award for ‘transforming the LAA’ at the annual Civil Service Awards in November 2016. The citation said that more than 90 per cent of legal aid applications are now received online and continued: ‘This approach has delivered great value for money and has enabled the LAA to deliver a better service to legal aid providers and clients.’
The LAA proudly tweeted its success via @LegalAidAgency
. Yet Twitter followers will be more used to reading the following, tweeted with all too great regularity:
Legal Aid Agency @LegalAidAgency 2 Dec 2016
Thank you for patience this week on CCMS. We continue to work to rectify remaining issues. Chk portal for updates #legalaid
Legal Aid Agency @LegalAidAgency 1 Dec 2016
Good morning. Aware of number of CCMS error notices, working hard to resolve ASAP with apologies #legalaid
Legal Aid Agency @LegalAidAgency 29 Nov 2016
We have made progress on CCMS today. Thank you for patience and we will tweet update tmorw am #legalaid
Legal Aid Agency @LegalAidAgency 29 Nov 2016
Working hard to ensure CCMS is working. Call service demand is very high. Pls only call if urgent #legalaid
Legal Aid Agency @LegalAidAgency 28 Nov 2016
We apologise for CCMS disruption today, urgently working to resolve & expect to back tomorrow am Pls only contact if urgent #legalaid
Legal Aid Agency @LegalAidAgency 31 Oct 2016
Good morning CCMS disruption the system is currently unavailable – we are investigating urgently #legalaid
The online CCMS was introduced to replace the paper-based system for the administration and payment of certificated civil legal aid work. The LAA ran a pilot of the scheme (which cost around £35m to develop) in the North East, from November 2012 to April 2014. The trial threw up numerous issues with its functionality, including the instability of the platform, the length of time it took to complete the application and the fact that users did not get a copy of what they had submitted.
A report published by the Association of Costs Lawyers (ACL) in May 2015, Report on the Legal Aid Agency’s Client and Cost Management System (CCMS)
, branded it fundamentally flawed and slammed the LAA for being in ‘institutional denial’ about its deficiencies. The ACL listed 23 specific flaws and concluded that CCMS had ‘multiple issues in every way a system can’ and that it ‘deteriorates existing business processes’.
Following repeated pleas from practitioner groups, the LAA delayed the national rollout scheduled for October 2015. In December 2015, it announced that CCMS would be mandatory for special Children Act work, for which it seemed to function well, from 1 February 2016, and for the rest of civil legal aid work from 1 April 2016.
Despite some improvements, says Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), there remain problems ‘at every level’ from making applications and amendments, to billing, the stability of the platform and its inability to cope at peak times. LAPG is running a survey to assess these ongoing issues.
‘People are despairing. I get emails from frustrated members saying they want to give up legal aid because of it. It is the biggest single issue for members and is a significant threat to the legal aid supplier base.’
Once practitioners have managed to lodge applications, the ‘massive’ delays in processing them and lack of joined-up thinking are causing serious problems, says Cris McCurley, partner and family law specialist in cases involving high-risk victims of violence at North East firm Ben Hoare Bell.
The UK is a signatory to the Hague Convention for dealing with international child abduction cases. As part of that, the government has committed to dealing with cases within six weeks from the date they are allocated to a solicitor. But, explains McCurley: ‘I can’t do that because it takes weeks for the CCMS to process the legal aid application. I got a case in the third week of December and I still haven’t got legal aid – that’s three out of the six weeks gone already.’
And she says it is not unusual to wait six to eight weeks before legal aid is granted. ‘In one case I had, three children were left with their abusive father and became alienated from their mother for over a year because of the delay.’ In two other cases, McCurley says she had to write to the court to vacate hearings because legal aid had not been processed.
In addition, she says, some of the LAA staff who administer the scheme lack understanding of the legal process, so wrongly disallow claims. ‘I have had legal aid refused on forced marriage and female genital mutilation cases where the LAA said it was not available because the client was out of the country – this shows a basic misunderstanding of the law.’ All of this, she says, ‘causes delay and stress for clients and puts them in the hands of domestic violence perpetrators and leaves children at extreme risk’.
Processing delays, says Craig Keenan, partner at Birmingham’s Community Law Partnership, led to two of his clients being evicted before legal aid was granted. Without a certificate, lawyers cannot work on cases, not just because of the financial risk to firms, he explains, but because it exposes clients to the risk of adverse costs orders – without legal aid, clients have no costs protection.
Because the process is not properly tailored to the work it covers, Keenan says he is sometimes forced to lie on the application. ‘We represent a lot of Gypsies and Travellers and often have to complete the application saying that they live in a flat, house or maisonette, because there is no option to give their address as a caravan or boat.’
Paul Seddon, chair of the ACL’s legal aid group, who wrote the critical report on the CCMS in 2015, states that ‘nothing has moved on over the last year’. Of the 23 issues flagged up, he says, only three have been dealt with and they were all minor problems. ‘The report still stands,’ he says.
‘The problem is that the LAA built a chassis for a Mini and then put a double-decker bus on top of it, which is why the wheels keep falling off. It was never designed to cope with the plethora of remuneration schemes that make up civil certificated legal aid billing,’ he explains.
The process, he adds, is not driven by the needs of the suppliers, but by the system itself, and the flaws in it are ‘compromising the ability of suppliers to get paid efficiently’.
Due to the length of time it takes to complete applications, some larger firms have delegated the task to dedicated administrative staff. But, says Vicky Ling, consultant at Partnership Quality Systems, that is not how it is supposed to be done – rather, the fee-earner is meant to complete the application with the client present.
Where that happens, she says, it can cause ‘enormous damage’ to the client/ solicitor relationship because of the nature of the application and questions asked, the unreliable system and the length of time taken to complete it. Clients, some of whom are dealing with traumatic issues and often have their children with them, have to sit for ages in front of the screen, which is slow and often freezes. They are used to online shopping and dealing with IT systems that work quickly, and cannot understand why the process is so slow, she adds.
Elspeth Thomson, co-chair of Resolution’s legal aid committee and partner at Newcastle firm David Gray, which was among the CCMS pilot firms, was ‘excited’ at the prospect of a ‘new, swishy system’ when it was first piloted in November 2012. But, she says, the LAA has been trying to get it right ever since. ‘It didn’t break last week – that’s as good as it gets.’
While there have been some advances, CCMS has not improved the process for practitioners. ‘We still can’t see what we have submitted once we have sent it off and have to spend time taking screenshots to capture what we have sent’, Thomson bemoans. She describes the online support facility as ‘ridiculous. When you send a query or report an error, you get a reply weeks later asking if the issue is still a problem’.
A new issue, says McCurley, has cropped up in relation to recoupment of payments on account – if the LAA needs to recoup funds, it does not do so from the case it was paid for, but randomly from different matters, causing accounting headaches.
What’s to be done?
While most lawyers would welcome an easyto-use, transparent and efficient online system, the consensus is that the design of the CCMS is so fundamentally flawed that it should be scrapped, with the LAA starting again from scratch.
But they are realistic and recognise that in the current challenging climate that is unlikely to happen. ‘They don’t have the money to do that. With the pressures on the Ministry of Justice, its priority will be keeping a lid on prisons – a few civil and family lawyers and their clients are nowhere in their priorities,’ observes Ling.
The pragmatic pleas from the profession are therefore for the LAA to engage more with them, try to understand the problems and respond to their feedback. ‘Try and engage properly, rather than just telling us we are not doing it right – understand that it does not work for us. I would just ask them not to be so defensive and engage with us nicely,’ says Thomson.
Defending the scheme, a spokesperson for the LAA said: ‘The [CCMS] has processed more than 88,000 civil legal aid applications and successfully paid nearly half a million bills since April 2016.’ She added: ‘A technical problem in November was resolved within a week, and a contingency process is in place for the most urgent applications in the event of technical difficulties.’