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ACL issues stark warning over legal aid billing system

Date:13 MAY 2015
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  • Legal Aid Agency needs to fix CCMS flaws or delay implementation, say Costs Lawyers
  • Report endorsed by groups including Law Society, LAPG, Resolution and LAG

The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) is in 'institutional denial' about the fundamental flaws in the new Client and Cost Management System (CCMS) that it is imposing on all civil legal aid providers, and unless this changes the preparation and payment of bills will be seriously delayed, the Association of Costs Lawyers (ACL) has warned.

The LAA has spent years building and piloting CCMS in an attempt to bring online how it administers £670m of its annual civil legal aid budget. CCMS becomes mandatory from 1 October 2015 and is projected to cost £69m over its lifetime.

In a comprehensive report on the problems practitioners are experiencing with CCMS, the ACL says that it actually 'deteriorates existing business processes' with poorly implemented functionality, while some required functionality has been 'missed completely'.

The report has been endorsed by other groups that are pressing the LAA to rethink its strategy on CCMS, such as the Law Society, Resolution, the Legal Aid Practitioners, Group, the Mental Health Lawyers Association and the Legal Action Group.

Written by the ACL’s Legal Aid Group, which has been involved in piloting the CCMS, the report says it can take months for the LAA to fix bugs, even when they relate to core issues such as the wrong remuneration rate. This reflects an approach that does not acknowledge issues or design gaps for what they are.

'There is even a lack of understanding about the basics of billing, like the difference between an estimate and an actual,' the report says. 'This often ignores case law, court procedure rules and even requirements in the LAA’s own contract with providers.'

The ACL calls on the LAA to recognise the problems with the system – which the report lists in order of priority – and to delay its implementation if they cannot be fixed in time.

'Bills will take longer to complete and are likely to be held up by requests from the LAA for standard information that cannot be initially included within the bill, and are more likely to be rejected due to errors caused by process deterioration,' the report concludes. 'This will result in significant delays to payment, which will impact upon the cash flow of providers who are already operating on profit margins that do not allow significant (if any) contingency.'
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Paul Seddon, chair of the ACL’s Legal Aid Group, says:

'CCMS is supposed to drive the LAA’s operational efficiency. But the unresolved issues we have seen indicate that efficiency will decrease, not only for the LAA but very seriously so for providers.

CCMS is supposed to reduce payment errors, but the challenges to system use will lead to an increase in errors on bills, which could result in an increase in payment errors.

The fact is that CCMS billing has been built against a flawed business process, after the LAA tried to change something it has not taken the time to understand. In doing so, the LAA has ignored both the essential characteristics of what makes it work at the moment and the basics of information management: to make the right information available to the right people at the right time.

Mandating this system in its current state will obstruct the efficient provision of what remains of legal aid, further constraining representation. We call on the LAA to make an honest appraisal of the current sorry state of CCMS and take action accordingly.'
Law Society President Andrew Caplen says:

'This report indicates that there are a significant number of serious concerns with the billing aspect of this system, which many of our members will not yet have encountered. We look forward to the Legal Aid Agency’s urgent response to this report. If the problems have been correctly identified, it is difficult to see how the system could currently be considered fit to become mandatory.'
A spokeswoman for family lawyers group Resolution says:

'We thoroughly endorse this report and repeat our call for the LAA to urgently review the CCMS and delay implementation if necessary. Our work with Resolution members using the pilot system confirms the findings of the ACL report – the CCMS is not fit for purpose and will cause serious problems for practitioners if made mandatory in October in its present condition.' 
Carol Storer, Director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, says:

'We welcome the report from the ACL. While there is a huge commitment by the profession to working electronically, any system delivered must be fit for purpose. It is two and a half years since the system was launched and practitioners continue reporting to us so many problems with CCMS that we have to question the ability of the LAA to deliver an effective system. It is difficult enough to carry out legal aid work without fighting an IT system that is clunky, frustrating, and in some respects is simply unworkable.'
A Mental Health Lawyers Association spokeswoman says it too supports the findings given members’ concerns that CCMS is 'not working satisfactorily'.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, a charity independent of legal aid providers and government, adds:

'Through a combination of cuts and stifling bureaucracy, legal aid providers are already struggling. If they are forced to adopt the CCMS system, it could be the last straw for many, with dire consequences for access to justice for the public.'
The report is available to download here.