Legal Aid Agency £35m billing scheme is ‘car crash waiting to happen’
Practitioner groups are warning of disaster if the Legal Aid Agency goes ahead with plans to make its ‘fundamentally flawed’ Client and Cost Management System (CCMS) compulsory from October 2015.
As the countdown begins to its autumn introduction across the board, lawyers’ criticisms of the scheme have intensified. Some of the fiercest have come from those who have devoted the most time trying to resolve flaws in the scheme, which aims to digitise administration of the £670m annual civil legal aid budget.
Russell Conway, senior partner at London firm Oliver Fisher, uses CCMS for 80 per cent of online applications. Conway says: ‘It is yet another government IT horror show. We are engaging with it, so we know how awful it is.’
Resolution chair Jo Edwards said it is ‘a national scandal’ that the LAA has spent £35m developing such a flawed system. Resolution has worked closely with the agency on the CCMS pilot but, says Edwards, ‘increasingly we feel we’re banging our head against a brick wall’.
Legal Aid Practitioners Group director Carol Storer has spent more than two years working with the LAA trying to get improvements to the system. She says she will have no choice but to resign if it is not fixed. ‘I could not, in all conscience, stay in my post as director of the profession’s representative body, if the LAA goes ahead with CCMS in its current form.’
The Association of Costs Lawyers Legal Aid Group has identified 23 specific flaws. It says CCMS often ignores case-law, court procedure rules and even the LAA’s own contract requirements. Instead of making billing quicker, it will slow things down and make everything worse, ACL concludes.
Management consultant Vicky Ling, who is not known for hyperbole, says the LAA’s determination to press on with CCMS ‘is like watching a car crash – I can see the cars are going to hit each other, but there is nothing I can do about it’.
Despite the chorus of disapproval, the LAA remains publicly upbeat about CCMS and says it intends to press ahead with its mandatory introduction in four months’ time. An agency spokesperson told Legal Action 1,000 providers are already using it effectively. Numbers of users are increasing weekly and ‘enhancements’ have been made to the scheme, following feedback, with more to come before October.
Most in the legal aid profession remain unconvinced and predict CCMS will drive small firms out of business.
LAG director Steve Hynes agrees with LAPG’s director that it is a resigning issue but says: ‘If CCMS cannot be sorted out, it’s Matthew Coats (pictured), the head of the LAA, who should be resigning, not Carol Storer.’
Cover story, pages 8–10