The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) last week rejected the profession’s calls for a delay in the compulsory use of its controversial Client and Costs Management System (CCMS), meaning the new regime started for all on 1 April.
Under transitional provisions announced last week, any new licensed work (and related post certificated work) paper applications dated prior to 8 April 2016 and received by the LAA on or before Thursday 14 April will be processed. Any received thereafter will not be processed and must be resubmitted using CCMS.
In exceptional circumstances, the LAA may permit new licensed work paper applications (and related post certificated work) to be submitted after 8 April 2016.
Three areas of work are currently exempt from mandatory usage: applications for associated civil work made by crime providers, applications made during the out-of-hours immigration service, and exceptional case funding applications made directly by clients or by a solicitor not holding a standard contract with the LAA.
In a message sent to members of the ACL’s legal aid group after attending an LAA meeting with representative groups, chairman Paul Seddon said the paper process will remain for contingency and providers will not be required to obtain authorisation before using it. This related to applications and amendments but he was still awaiting confirmation on claims.
“However, the paper application will be entered onto CCMS for the provider by the LAA and future management and claims cannot be bypassed off of CCMS permanently. Every transaction (interaction, e.g. clicks) is recorded on CCMS (date, time etc.) and the LAA expect providers make at least two attempts before reverting to contingency. The LAA say that they will be closely monitoring behaviours and trends. For clarification, transactions on the LAA Portal do not have such close monitoring tools and the LAA can only see what is happening with the portal by reference to usage (i.e. when it drops).”
Mr Seddon continued: “The LAA deems five seconds per transaction to be acceptable. In my view, this raises issues on bills where an unnecessary amount of transactions (screens) have been put into the process, particularly on non-fixed fee claims. It was acknowledged in the meeting that the billing process is very complicated: each line item is re-run by CCMS at the back-end when it is input. Five to 10 seconds is deemed ‘tolerated’ and 10+ seconds is deemed ‘frustrated’.”
In the previous week, 87% of usage had been deemed to be at normal speed, with 13% unsatisfactory (that is, transactions exceeding five seconds).
Mr Seddon reported that the LAA have requested £2.7m for further improvements to the system, for which it is awaiting approval. Some of these are planned to be billing, which the LAA said it was looking to “enhance” this year.
He continued: “I re-voiced to the LAA (and the other representative bodies) that the ACL is awaiting a tidal wave of billing problems on CCMS in its current state, as detailed in our report, particularly regarding claims not subject to fixed fees. I also added that I genuinely hoped this did not happen – no one needs the headache.
“I raised the issue that the only saving grace so far is the Claim Upload (previously called Bulk Upload), and that this is still only provided by one software provider (re-raising the issue of market competition) and that I had seen emails between a software provider and the LAA that showed this was not down to the software provider failing to co-operate. Indeed, they were doing everything feasibly possible to progress the testing of their product and it was the LAA who could not facilitate. I was told that there is testing happening with software providers (though the problem is which ones are designated solicitor’s costs software) and I am to receive a list of these.”
Meanwhile, Mr Seddon was a co-signatory of a letter published last week in The Guardian to mark the third anniversary of LASPO, calling for a review of the legislation’s impact. It said: “Every day, our members and the people we support see the impact of the measures implemented in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. We believe the legal aid reforms have had a severe impact on the ability of vulnerable people to access justice since they came into effect on 1 April 2013. We agree with the justice select committee that the cuts have limited access to justice for some of those who need legal aid the most. Too much effort has focused on the point of crisis rather than prevention, and the number of people who have no choice but to represent themselves in court has risen sharply.
“The government has repeatedly said it will carry out a review to assess the full impact of the legal aid changes after three years. Today, we call on ministers to fulfil this commitment at the earliest opportunity. We believe it is vital for government to ensure nobody is denied access to justice based on their ability to pay.”
A host of legal and non-legal groups signed the letter, which was organised by family lawyers group Resolution. They included the Law Society, Bar Council, Legal Action Group, Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Shelter and Relate.