Legal Aid Agency in ‘denial’ over flawed digital billing scheme

A year after it was rolled out, problems with CCMS continue unabated. Fiona Bawdon reports

Legal Aid Agency delays and continuing problems with its ‘disastrous’ digital application and billing scheme are putting vulnerable clients at risk and driving firms out of business, lawyers are warning.

The LAA’s much-criticised Client and Cost Management System (CCMS) became mandatory a year ago, but some practitioners say problems with it are so serious its use should be suspended. They are calling for civil lawyers to take a leaf out of criminal practitioners’ book and bring legal action against the agency over CCMS.

One exasperated solicitor called on the Law Society to take a lead in bringing a legal challenge. ‘We should be litigating. We are lawyers, after all,’ he says.

Speaking at the Legal Aid Practitioner Group conference last autumn, LAA chief executive Shaun McNally insisted he was committed to listening, and working with practitioners ‘to make our processes more efficient’. He wanted an ‘adult to adult’ relationship with the profession, he said. Despite McNally’s aspirations, relations between the LAA and legal aid firms are as fractious as ever, in large part because of its failure to acknowledge serious flaws in CCMS. Lawyers who battle with its inadequacies every day, accuse the LAA of being in denial about its failings, and instead blaming lawyers for ‘not doing IT’.

Shaun McNally at LAPG annual conference 2016 © Robert Aberman
Shaun McNally at LAPG annual conference 2016 © Robert Aberman

LAPG director Carol Storer says: ‘There is not a legal aid firm that doesn’t have a case management system. They know there is no alternative to CCMS. No one want to go back to a paper system.’ What they want is for the well catalogued problems with CCMS to be taken seriously and resolved. She describes as ‘unfortunate’ McNally’s rosy description of CCMS in the agency’s 2015-16 annual report(see Alternative Facts?  box at end). ‘People felt very insulted.’

The LAA’s nomination of the IT team behind CCMS for a Civil Service skills award was seen as equally tactless (see Alternative Facts?  box at end), particularly given that anyone looking at the LAA’s Twitter feed can see how often the system is down and how long it appears to take to fix it. CCMS is so bad that even Private Eye noticed, describing it in two news items last year variously as ‘piss poor’ and ‘useless’.

CCMS twitter 3Storer says LAPG’s attempts to hold the agency to account over CCMS have been hampered because firms don’t trust the LAA. Her in-box is full of emails detailing problems with it, but many practitioners don’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation, making it all but impossible to force the LAA to investigate what is going wrong in these cases.

Cris McCurley, partner at Ben Hoare Bell in Newcastle, who heard McNally speak at the LAPG event, says: ‘He wants a grown up relationship, but it isn’t grown up if people are afraid to speak. It isn’t adult when they hold all the power – which they do.’

McCurley had previously been one of those wary of speaking out, but says she is now past that point, because of the impact on her clients. She cites the case a violent father who refused to return his three children to their mother, after she had previously fled with them to a refuge. McCurley had originally applied for an injunction, but suddenly needed to apply for the urgent return of the children to their mother. It was a complex and unfolding situation.

‘The children are texting their mum saying, “Dad says he’s going to kill himself. He’s banging his head against the wall. Grandma’s passed out on the floor.” The police are called but don’t do anything. Social services visit the next day and say everything looks fine. I contact the LAA, and they say, “We’ve got this backlog. Sorry.”‘

McCurley says: ‘Children are being left in dangerous situations because of the backlog.’

Under the old, paper-based system, certificates could be amended quickly and ‘you could be in court the next morning’. Even when it’s working, CCMS can only deal with one amendment at a time.

In an urgent case like that, why doesn’t McCurley just go ahead, anyway, without waiting for approval from the LAA? ‘My practice is primarily focused on children at high risk. If I did that every time, I would be out of business within months. These are very, very specialist cases.’

In another example, a father manage to escape with his children from the family home, where he was being abused by his wife and her business partner.
As a male victim of domestic violence, ‘there were no services for him,’ so they all had to return home. ‘The LAA still haven’t dealt with his application,’ says McCurley.

CCMS twitter-1A housing lawyer who also acts primarily for vulnerable clients, tells a similar story. ‘I now tell my clients, your main opponent in this case is not the other side, it’s the Legal Aid Agency.’ He declines to be named for fear of being penalised when housing contracts come up for renewal next year, and says his firm’s card has already been marked by the LAA. ,’ ‘We have been told by our contract manager, “You are providing a Rolls-Royce service, whereas we only want to pay for a bike. We don’t want to do business with you.”‘

The heart of the issue, says Storer, is that all the illogic and convolution of the civil legal aid scheme, that barely anyone understood anyway, have been replicated in CCMS. ‘It is based on a system which has been salami sliced and tweaked and tweaked because of endless cuts,’ she says. No wonder it is such a mess.

Pig in a poke
In 2015, Storer threatened to resign from her post as LAPG director if the LAA went ahead with making CCMS mandatory as planned in October that year, without improvements. It was finally rolled out in February 2016 and Storer concedes it is better than it was. The system-wide issues (slowness, being unable to log on, being suddenly logged off) apply across the board, but (mainly because Resolution members spent hours and hours in unpaid working with the LAA to hone it), CCMS now works reasonably well for non-means/non-merits tested applications in family and Court of Protection work. For anything that’s means and merits tested, including other aspects of family, it is hopeless.

Storer says: ‘The LAA just don’t understand enough about, say, housing law to be able to design a successful system.’

CCMS twitter 2-1Overall, it is still ‘a pig in a poke’. ‘There are problems with its design; with functionality; with the browser; with the human interaction when you try to report a problem. Every email I get from practitioners about CCMS lists a dozen problems they are having with it.’ It is so counterintuitive that it can only be used after extensive training. Many lawyers have given up reporting problems or trying to contact the helpline, but just resign themselves to spending hours and multiple attempts to do something that could be achieved in minutes on the old paper system.

Storer claims for some lawyers, CCMS has been the final straw. One emailed recently saying she was closing her office ‘because of bureaucracy and exhaustion’. The senior partner of a leading London housing firm says his fee earners don’t want to do legal aid work any more because they can’t bear battling with CCMS.

LAPG’s concern is that if the LAA’s rose-tinted view of the scheme isn’t decisively challenged, the Treasury will cut funding for any improvements, leaving practitioners stuck with an unworkable system. At the time of writing, the group was planning to collate feedback from its members and considering its next move.

Even once a claim is submitted, things are no better. The LAA is turning down applications on the flimsiest of grounds, according to practitioners. They say the LAA’s enthusiasm for knocking back claims is such that staff must be being incentivised to reject as many of them as possible.

The anonymous housing lawyer says that even when clients are on passported benefits, LAA staff are now poring over the bank statements, looking for any reasons to deny funding.

In one example, a mentally ill client who lacked capacity and was facing eviction was turned down because his mother had lent him £200 to pay off credit card debts he had run up before Christmas. The LAA said the additional sum put him over the income threshold, leaving him liable to pay legal bills of many thousands of pounds.

The lawyer says: ‘LAA staff will say, “we have now had the chance to plough through the bank statements, line by line, and we notice there is another bank account somewhere, and we want that. We have seen some entries that you need to explain.”‘

Means assessments which used to be speedy are now subject to long delays, and more demanding of both lawyers and clients.

Cris McCurley tells of a domestic violence victim who had fled the matrimonial home to stay with her mum, and was told she had to make a capital contribution of £3,000, because the matrimioonial disregard no longer applied to the home she had shared with her abusive partner.

McCurley says: ‘I have raised this with the LAA so many times. The people who make these decisions have no legal training.’

Equally galling for McCurley, who is recognised as a leader in her field, is being second-guessed by non-lawyers. On one occasion, she was told by an LAA staffer, she shouldn’t have applied for a wardship in a particular case. ‘But the high court judge gave me the wardship. What makes the LAA a better judge than him?’ she asks.

Legal Voice put the issues raised in this article to the LAA, via the Ministry of Justice press office, including specifically asking for confirmation that critics of CCMS would not be penalised, and for clarification over whether LAA staff are being incentivised to reject claims. After a week and despite several assurances, Legal Voice has not received a response.

It is hard to square such silence with Shaun McNally’s insistence that he wants a different kind of settlement with the profession. At the moment, it seems clear the LAA can maintain its current blinkered approach to CCMS, or it can work towards an adult relationship – but it can’t have both.


Downbeat about Claim Upload

Paul Seddon, chair of the Association of Costs Lawyers’ legal aid group, is a long-standing and better informed than most critic of CCMS. On 15 January 2017, he wrote to the head of the LAA’s CCMS civil contract consultative group setting out detailed concerns about its ‘Claim Upload’ facility. Claim Upload allows bills to be uploaded, without having to battle with CCMS’ notorious user interface, and, says Seddon, ‘is the only reason why many costs lawyers can continue to provide legal aid billing services’.

The LAA promised a reply by the end of January, but at the time of writing Seddon had yet to receive one. In any event, he was not hopeful. ‘Frankly, unless they’re going to tell me that they’ve completely overhauled their entire approach to [software] testing, then I’m doubtful I’ll be satisfied.’

One of Seddon’s main concerns about Claim Upload (of which there are many) is that there is currently only one IT provider which has managed to work its way through the idiosyncrasies of CCMS to produce compatible costs software. As a result, there is only one external software package on the market for the preparation of bills.

At least one IT company which was trying to develop a package gave up in despair after multiple problems with CCMS, saying: ‘We’ve found it simply too flawed to be able to support it. We have spent tens of thousands of pounds trying to develop a solution but at every stage we encountered problems.’

According to Seddon, the LAA has consistently been unable to provide the correct dummy version of CCMS for suppliers to test against, an essential stage in any software production.

Seddon says problems with CCMS are compounded by weaknesses in the LAA’s ‘vendor support’ team – which is supposed to work with external providers. Seddon says the team has neither the IT skills or knowledge of legal aid billing to be able to help. Rather than being specialists, he describes them as ‘customer services – with a severe lack of technical support’.


Alternative facts?

Summary of an email from an LAPG member, a leading social welfare firm.

On June 16, it attempted to make an appeal request against a limit on an emergency housing certificate, but was unable to upload documents on to CCMS, due to technical problems. On June 20, it was advised to appeal using the contingency procedure allowed when CCMS isn’t working, and resubmit the documents by email.

On August 2, they were told the emailed appeal they sent had not been logged; they were told to resubmit by CCMS, which was working again by then.

After chasing the LAA for a response, they were told to submit the papers again by CCMS on September 27; and then again on December 19.

The firm has was dissatisfied with the LAA’s response to its formal complaint, and is now taking the matter to the ombudsman.

The lawyer involved says: ‘It is not just the technical problems and the time it take to submit application using CCMS but also LAA caseworkers making repeated requests for the same documents to be uploaded, refusing to process documents and applications properly submitted using the contingency procedure, refusing to provide substantive responses when they have been sent all the relevant documents and failing to acknowledge the delays and inefficiency caused by this.’

Shaun McNally introduction to LAA annual report 2015-2016:

‘CCMS was rolled out and made mandatory for the online submission of civil legal aid applications and bills….These changes have involved working with both internal and external stakeholders to ensure we all reap the benefits of digital working…Our performance has been maintained…Our customer service has been enhanced through the use of digital and cloud-based systems.’

LAA’s successful nomination of its digital capability team for the 2016 Civil Service Awards skills award:

‘More than 90 per cent of legal aid applications are now received online…..This approach has delivered great value for money and has enabled LAA to deliver a better service to legal aid providers and their clients. Almost three-quarters of LAA staff say the training has helped them develop their career.’

















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