Legal Aid Agency to make CCMS mandatory from 1 April
Resolution and LAPG criticise LAA decision to make CCMS compulsory
In what many lawyers will be hoping is an early April Fool's Day prank, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has confirmed that all new applications for legal aid must be made using its client and cost management system (CCMS) from 1 April.
The announcement comes despite warnings from representative bodies that the system is not yet fit for purpose, including Resolution's letter to the LAA last week. The family law group described the CCMS as 'another failing government IT project' that should be delayed from entering mandatory service.
Despite its online portal continuing to affect a number of legal aid providers, the LAA said that more than 80 per cent of all new civil legal aid applications had now been made via the CCMS.
The agency has, however, conceded that as practitioners are still experiencing significant technical difficulties, a paper application will be accepted on a 'contingency' basis.
In a joint statement responding to the LAA announcement, Emma Cordock, chair of Resolution's legal aid committee, along with Nicola Mackintosh QC (Hon), and Jenny Beck, both co-chairs of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), said they were disappointed the agency had not listened to CCMS users, more than two-thirds of whom have reported problems with the system.
'We do welcome the introduction of contingency measures, which does allow for paper submissions in certain circumstances,' said the lawyers. 'This acknowledges the frustration felt by users, and delays and restrictions to access to justice suffered by some of the most vulnerable in society.
'However, the guidance on how these measures will work will lead to even greater confusion, uncertainty, and frustration among the legal aid community.'
The response continued: 'The LAA defines a condition by which a paper application may be submitted as an "exceptional circumstance". Regrettably, the experience of our members is that regular problems and system failure is anything but exceptional.
'Just yesterday, we received many reports that people could not access the LAA portal.'
The LAPG and Resolution - which had previously criticised the £35m online portal as 'nothing short of a national scandal' - reiterated its call for the LAA to 'see sense' and not force practitioners to use a system that was not fit for purpose.
Last year, the Association of Costs Lawyers (ACL) warned that the LAA was in 'institutional denial' over fundamental flaws in its IT system. A report from the ACL's legal aid group said it could take months for bugs to be purged from the CCMS.
Writing in SJ last year, Russell Conway, a senior partner at Oliver Fisher Solicitors, said the CCMS was just another government 'IT horror show'.
The president of the Law Society, Jonathan Smithers, said he was disappointed by the LAA's decision: 'The Ministry of Justice has been experiencing significant technical problems for the past three weeks, resulting in our members losing the time they were supposed to have to get used to the enhancements to the system.
'Our members cannot be confident that the system will work unless and until there has been a period of consistent untroubled running. The LAA has committed to share performance data and we will be monitoring closely the day-to-day experience of our members in attempting to use the system.'
Areas of work currently exempt from mandatory CCMS use are 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 solicitor not holding an LAA contract.
An LAA spokesperson said: 'The CCMS will become mandatory on 1 April 2016. We are very mindful of the recent LAA online portal issues, which resulted in some providers having difficulty accessing CCMS. The issues have been fixed and providers have seen improved performance as a result.
'Our primary objective is to ensure that access to legal aid is available and that applications are not hindered. If providers experience significant technical difficulties after 1 April they will still be able to submit paper applications.'