‘CCMS will put small firms out of business’
The Legal Aid Agency has spent two years and millions of pounds developing a digital billing system that is slower and more cumbersome than the paper one it replaces. Catherine Baksi explains why the LAA’s Client and Cost Management System is driving hard-pressed practitioners to tears.
Lawyers are warning that a multimillion pound government IT project, intended to improve the efficiency of billing civil and family legal aid work, is so flawed that it could push many small and rural firms over the edge into bankruptcy.
Less than half a year before the Client and Cost Management System (CCMS) is due to become compulsory – from 1 October 2015 – a report from the Association of Costs Lawyers (ACL) Legal Aid Group, written by its chair, Paul Seddon, has branded it fundamentally flawed and slammed the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) for being in ‘institutional denial’ about its deficiencies.
Firms report staff being driven to tears after wrestling with the system, court hearings delayed, and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group’s (LAPG) hardworking director, Carol Storer (pictured), has now threatened to resign from her post, held since 2008, if improvements aren’t made.
‘CCMS often ignores case law, court procedure rules, and even requirements in the LAA’s own contract with providers’
In a recent instance, a three-day hearing was vacated because one of the firms involved in the case had to stop work after problems with CCMS meant its substantive legal aid certificate hadn’t arrived in time (see box).
A chequered history
CCMS was introduced as part of the LAA’s integrated delivery programme, which has a projected cost of £69m over its lifetime, and aims to shift the administration of the £670m annual civil legal aid budget online.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has confirmed that the companies behind the project are multinational management consultants and IT giants Capgemini, which provided the system development, and Northgate Public Services, responsible for support and electronic document management. Atos – the multinational infamous for its handling of the fitnessfor-work tests for sick and disabled people, known as work capability assessments – has also had an indirect role in the project, as it provides the IT infrastructure services across the wider MoJ.
Around £35m has been spent on the development of CCMS and a pilot that ran in the North East from November 2012 to April 2014, involving a number of legal aid firms, exposed numerous problems with it.
Despite individual firms and practitioner groups devoting countless unpaid hours to help the LAA sort out the system, and some tinkering on the agency’s part, it appears that little has been achieved to improve CCMS’s functionality. Storer has spent more than two years liaising with the agency on LAPG members’ behalf, feeding back their concerns and trying to secure improvements to the system. She agrees with ACL that the LAA is in denial about CCMS and the impact it will have on the profession. ‘They are just not listening,’ she says. ‘I could not, in all conscience, stay in my post as director of the legal aid profession’s representative body if the LAA goes ahead with CCMS in its current form.’
‘It can take up to four hours to complete an application, compared to half an hour on paper: “I’ve had staff in tears over it”’
She adds that firms using CCMS that do raise concerns with their local LAA managers are fobbed off and given the impression that they are the only ones having problems with it. ‘I have had a stack of anguished emails, letters and phone calls from my members which prove that that is simply not true. These issues are across the board.’
Lack of understanding
The ACL report says that ‘hardly any actual system issues have been addressed’ and lists 23 specific flaws. These range from the inability to sort entries by date or to enter required information on disbursements, to incorrect scope and costs limitations being displayed and incorrect payment rates applied. It notes that it can take months for the LAA to fix bugs, even when they relate to core issues, reflecting an approach that does not properly acknowledge issues or design gaps.
The report also says there appears to be a lack of understanding about the basics of billing, including the difference between an estimate and an actual bill, and points out that the system often ignores case law, court procedure rules and even requirements in the LAA’s own contract with providers.
It concludes that CCMS still has ‘multiple issues in every way a system can’ and finds it actually ‘deteriorates existing business processes’ with poorly implemented functionality, while some required functionality has been ‘missed completely’.
The report calls on the LAA to recognise the problems with the system and to delay its implementation if they cannot be fixed in time. Otherwise, it warns, bills will take longer to complete and will be more likely to be rejected, resulting in significant delays to payment, hitting the cash-flow of already hard-pressed practitioners operating on profit margins that do not allow significant contingency.
‘CCMS is supposed to drive the LAA’s operational efficiency,’ the report states. Instead, though, the ‘unresolved issues we have seen indicate that efficiency will decrease, not only for the LAA but very seriously so for providers’.
It attributes the system’s flawed process to the fact that the LAA tried to ‘change something it has not taken the time to understand’. ‘Mandating this system in its current state will obstruct the efficient provision of what remains of legal aid, further constraining representation,’ it says.
Practitioners’ experiences of CCMS
‘We have just had a three-day hearing vacated (with loads of extra work with no purpose whatsoever) because one legally aided party had their substantive certificate delayed (so the firm had to stop work) because of CCMS’s inability to deal with the client’s finances. Cost all round to the other parties … plus cost to the court system of having a judge hanging around, in the thousands, with no benefit.’
‘On two of my files, when I try to amend and do a POA1, each time I press “submit”, I get the “CCMS is not working” message. I have contacted the support service as this happened each time for about a week. They said, try again!’
‘I applied for a certificate to contest an adoption and the limitation for final hearing was removed. I applied for this to be included, and a message came back asking for a copy of the pleadings. There are seven lever-arch files in the matter, so I was not prepared to scan all of them, and asked for what they wanted specifically. Nothing received back and they closed the window for me to submit these documents.’
‘I had major issues. I submitted documents for discharge; the message kept saying “nothing has been submitted”. There needs to be a way of showing that something has been submitted and what it is, so you can check you sent all the documents.’
‘At the beginning I tried to send bank statements and a benefit letter, but put “&” in the message and this kept rejecting. On telephoning the helpline, I was told that you can’t use symbols. Who doesn’t use symbols when you are trying to stipulate there are two items and space is limited!’
‘I have had to wait for five to seven weeks for certificates and six weeks for a response to a query I had.’
‘When you telephone the help desk they tell you to telephone the 0300 number, and when you telephone them, they say they can’t help you on the telephone, as they need to get somebody to log on to the system and call you back. Is that because it takes forever to get on and do anything on the system? It is not helpful when you may be ringing between client appointments and can’t wait at the desk for a call back relating to an urgent issue.’
‘I spent 25 minutes (timed!) trying to get onto the CCMS system. Each time I went in, it told me that the system was busy and to try later … I made a call to the CCMS online support team which lasted 1 hour and 6 mins (!!), it was found that I was not recognised by the CCMS system as my information was not “synched” in properly from the LAA’s end … I was told that there were so far 42 firms where the data had not “synched” in.’
‘Unable to copy and paste from Word into CCMS eg when applying for an increase in costs.’
‘When calling the CCMS helpdesk, if the problem cannot be resolved on the phone there and then, they sometimes ask us to provide them with our name and number and they will call us back – THIS NEVER HAPPENS!’
Many voices ignored
The ACL’s report was endorsed by other practitioner groups, including LAPG, LAG, the Law Society, Resolution and the Mental Health Lawyers Association. Its findings echo concerns raised repeatedly during the life of the project. Speaking at its annual conference last month, Resolution chair Jo Edwards (pictured) called it a ‘national scandal’ that the LAA had poured millions into CCMS when that money could have been better spent funding initial legal advice for the huge number of vulnerable people deprived of access to justice since the 2013 cuts.
Resolution, said Edwards, had initially taken the view that it was better to work with the LAA rather than against it, but ‘increasingly, we feel we’re banging our head against a brick wall. They seem intent on rolling CCMS out in October, at any cost, despite the very many difficulties we have long been flagging.’
‘I could not, in all conscience, stay as LAPG director if the agency goes ahead with CCMS in its current form’
The system, she said, had been ‘beset with problems since its introduction’ and despite some welcome improvements, significant problems remain that ‘engender serious doubt’ as to whether CCMS will ever be fit for purpose. In particular, she highlighted continued instability, the fact that users cannot keep a record of what they have submitted, and that it can take three times as long as the paper process to complete. ‘We welcome online working, but this is not the way to do it,’ she said, predicting ‘untold difficulties’ if it becomes mandatory in October.
‘My message to the LAA is simple – just because something works for you, doesn’t mean that it works,’ she stressed.
LAPG, meanwhile, has warned of ‘meltdown of the legal aid system and chaos for clients’ unless the problems are resolved. In its Manifesto for Legal Aid, the organisation called on the LAA to scrap plans to make CCMS compulsory, pending a formal independent review of its effectiveness. To do otherwise, it said, would be ‘foolhardy’.
Ivory tower thinking?
Despite these dire warnings, the LAA remains positive. It says that more than 1,000 providers are already using CCMS and claims that they are using it effectively and have provided positive feedback.
An LAA spokesman confirms the agency has received more than 33,000 applications via CCMS to date and says that approximately half of all new applications now come in via the system, with the number increasing weekly.
The LAA insists that it has ‘enhanced’ the system following feedback, adding that a number of further key changes will be made before October.
The view from the coalface is somewhat different. Russell Conway (pictured), senior partner at London firm Oliver Fisher, had high hopes for it. But those have been dashed. It is, he says, ‘yet another government IT horror show’. The system, he says, is ‘clunky, old-fashioned and bungling. You can only answer one question per page, you can’t go back a page, and the system frequently times out, tells you it is busy or crashes.’ Craig Keenan, a solicitor at Birmingham’s Community Law Partnership, backs this up: ‘I even logged on at 6.30 am on Christmas Eve and it told me it was busy.’
Conway’s firm completes around 80 per cent of its applications online. ‘We are engaging with it,’ he explains, ‘so we know how awful it is.’ It can take up to four hours to complete an application, he says, compared to half an hour on paper, adding: ‘I’ve had staff in tears over it. For a digital system to be slower than a paper one is madness.’
Cynically, he wonders if it designed to discourage firms from making applications. But his concern goes beyond conspiracy theories: ‘We have the most up-to-date IT systems and an IT manager, and we are struggling. Most firms don’t have this, so how will they cope?’
Management consultant Vicky Ling (pictured) shares his concern. ‘It will drive firms out of business,’ she says, ‘especially the smaller and rural ones, and those dealing with vulnerable clients.’
The only workable solution that she has come across to deal with the system is for firms to take the data input out of lawyers’ hands and employ full-time specialist CCMS administrators. This, though, increases overheads, so is only an option for those with sufficient volumes of work.
‘We have the most up-to-date IT systems and an IT manager, and we are struggling. Most firms don’t have this, so how will they cope?’
‘It’s like watching a car crash – I can see the cars are going to hit each other, but I can’t do anything about it’
Time to hit the brakes
Conway is worried about what will happen in October, when CCMS becomes mandatory. ‘Neither the system nor the telephone helpline will be able to cope,’ he predicts.
Keenan has similar woes. He would prefer to use a digital system, but says his firm had to stop using CCMS after it tried it for 10 cases. ‘We had problems with every case, but when we reported them to the LAA, we were told the problem was with our browser.’
Ling, too, predicts disaster if the ‘misconceived’ scheme becomes mandatory. ‘It’s like watching a car crash – I can see the cars are going to hit each other, but I can’t do anything about it,’ she says.
In contrast, she points to the simple digital system introduced for criminal work: ‘Criminal practitioners like it, in contrast to the stress and bewilderment felt by civil practitioners. CCMS must be a huge saving for the LAA, which has basically outsourced data entry to firms, but it has massively increased the cost for practitioners.’
She concludes: ‘I don’t think CCMS can be made to work. The LAA should abandon it and put in place the same system implemented for criminal work.’
To avert the predicted disaster, Resolution’s Edwards, in her annual conference speech, advised the LAA: ‘Listen to what practitioners are saying, and act on it now, for your own sake as much as anyone else’s.’