This is no April fool. CCMS D-Day is here.
A recent Resolution survey confirmed that while 82% of users thought that CCMS was not ready for compulsory use, 71% of respondents said they welcome the concept of electronic working. I am among those 82% and 71% respectively. I am however filled with very little confidence going forwards and while I want CCMS to work, there seems little prospect of that any time soon.
The LAA’s announcement on 30.03.16 suggests that they have listened to feedback from users & representative bodies and have balanced a number of factors including performance, functionality and usage in deciding to mandate the system. I cannot help but wonder who have they been listening too? The “feedback” from us has been (since 7 March 2016) repeated issues of a basic system functionality failure, i.e. not being able to log in, getting unexpectedly logged out and a series of system errors. Those errors have persisted until today and are continuing.
The LAA’s response to the feedback they say they have received has been to introduce amended transitional arrangements and contingency arrangements. Even those have been fudged:
A full 7 further days! Unless there are exceptional circumstances (and there is an eerie silence on what that means) any new licensed work (and related post certificated work) paper applications dated prior to 8 April 2016 and received by the Legal Aid Agency on or before Thursday 14 April 2016 will be processed. Those after Friday 15 April 2016 will not be processed and must be resubmitted using CCMS. If it is working.
CCMS Users ‘experiencing significant technical difficulties that prevent submission through CCMS’ are able to submit a paper application for urgent work. However, users are ‘expected to exercise reasonable effort when using CCMS to submit applications and only send a paper application when unable to progress the matter using CCMS’. Nothing is said about what constitutes a ‘reasonable effort’, but the contingency form issued by the LAA that must be submitted with a paper application provides that any practitioner applying via this contingency must sign a declaration stating that “I have tried on at least two occasions to submit my application using CCMS” and asking to set out the details. So, the provision the LAA have put into place appears to be 2 failed attempts to access the system/submit an application (their version of making reasonable efforts) will result in a paper application being made by us.
I have encouraged our fee earners (and would encourage anyone else using CCMS) to take screenshots of the errors and to email those screen shots to the online support team. I have in fact been doing this since 7 March 2016. On a quick count of emails, I have sent 26 to online support (some which complained of multiple errors) since 7 March 2016. I have received 25 auto-replies advising that the LAA are “aware that some users are having issues when logging in to the online portal” and that they are investigating it as a “high priority”. I have received a single personalised reply (today) telling me to “try again a little later”.
Many of our clients are faced with possession proceedings, frequently with imminent eviction and with homelessness; they can’t wait a little later because they might have missed a court deadline a little later or be evicted a little later or might be spending another night on the streets a little later. Those with families may need to take kids to and from school; they use public transport and can’t afford from meagre benefit level/low paid income to come and go from our offices in the hope that CCMS is working at the time they attend so we can submit an application for them. I really can’t imagine a claim for costs to the LAA at the end of a case where the time claimed for trying to and then making an application goes to several hours. It is a quite preposterous waste of public money to add to the £69m already spent on developing CCMS to its current totally inadequate state.
I’d be happy for anyone from the LAA (that’s an open invite) to come to our offices for a few days and watch how we do what we do and to experience the system from our perspective first hand.
The visiting LAA Officer can then provide the explanation to our clients when CCMS goes into error mode – here’s my imagined version of that explanation:-
“Legal Aid is available to you within LASPO for your case and our primary aim is to ensure that access to legal aid is available regardless of the method used to apply for it. However, as the new system isn’t available at present, you are going to have to either wait until an unspecified time when the system might start working again or go away and come back on another day when the system might be working again. If, after 2 tries, the system still isn’t working, we can take an application on paper from you as a last resort. In due course the paper application will be put onto the new system that isn’t working anyway”.
I wonder whether the LAA are actually listening to our concerns? They seem to me to be railroading the ‘delivery’ of a major IT project for the MoJ despite flawed system functionality and the consistent system errors. For us, for barristers’ chambers, costs draughtsmen and our clients, a dystopian digital nightmare has now become a reality.
Craig Keenan, Partner