Social Welfare Lawyers in the Centre of Birmingham

Computer Still Says NO

The arrogance of the Legal Aid Agency in their “a rush & a push & the land is ours” approach of deciding not to delay mandating CCMS from 1 April 2016 was frustrating and disappointing. When mandated, the system had not been working for several weeks beforehand following what the LAA refer to as a series of “enhancements” but what are known in common parlance as “fixing the latest error”. The net result is that CCMS is still unstable and prone to errors. I have lost count of the number of times I and my colleagues have been unable to log in, have logged in & automatically been logged out, have been told we are using back/forward buttons on browsers when we have done no such thing and have had to apologise to clients for wasting their time. 

Indeed, the day I started writing this, we experienced a complete system failure at around 10.30am. We couldn’t make applications and we couldn’t view our existing applications. I had been asked by the LAA to upload documents to support one of my client’s applications but I could not access the part of the system to upload the documents. An hour or so later, a systems message told us that there was a problem and it was being dealt with as ‘urgent’. Almost 10 hours later, when I tried again later (at 8.20pm), I was met with a system error reference number 1466018359005. I don’t know what that reference number means (perhaps it is a counter of the number of errors?) but I am not sure the LAA do either.

Also, I’d welcome an answer – we do report these issues by phone and usually send a screen shot to the LAA technical enquiries team, they acknowledge it and then we never hear from them again. The error referred to above was finally fixed the following day but with the sting in the tail that any documents uploaded the previous day before the system had gone into error state had been lost. So, if we had used the system to upload documents earlier in the day, we had to upload them once more. Time wasted completing the task the first time, time wasted trying to upload docs the following day, time wasted complaining and then time wasted having do things for a second time. We are told to “persevere”; I think we can say that we do. Moreover, the urgent way in which the system error was dealt with is laughable. in my book ”urgent” means ‘!! URGENT !!’ like having a homeless family in our waiting room who have been unlawfully refused temporary accommodation by a local authority, needing to get on with the legal work let alone dealing with a fractious system for making legal aid applications and system errors. It is not telling them to keep calling an emergency number with no reply, and telling them to come back to our offices in 24 hours while they brave an uncertain night on the streets or sitting in a Police station.

The LAA have a contingency process when CCMS isn’t working. It provides that if you can’t make an online application, you can make one on paper. Here’s our first example of that contingency process:-

12.04.16 Unable to do CCMS on-line application; completed paper application.

14.04.16 Supporting documents sent to LAA by DX

29.04.16 Advised by LAA that CCMS team would upload the application made 12.04.16

17.05.16 Emailed to LAA to advise “we have heard nothing”

20.05.16 Email from LAA to advise application is still waiting to be uploaded.

02.06.16 We -called CCMS team; they agreed to look into it and get back to
us – they didn’t.

07.06.16 Email from LAA to advise application is still waiting to be uploaded.

09.06.16 Email to our LAA Account Manager asking for her intervention.

10.06.16 Application now on CCMS and emergency certificate issued.

Almost 2 complete calendar months of delay. If this is an example of the contingency process, it needs – like CCMS itself – a complete re-work.

Our frustrations have been vented on twitter using the #CCMSfail hashtag and it is useful to note that the LAA are monitoring those frustrations and those of other legal aid providers. We were told by the LAA that we were more likely to find a remedy to the issues we were having by using the appropriate support from the LAA but what they did not appreciate is that we had already tried that.

The issues that legal aid providers have experienced are not teething problems or ‘bedding in’ issues. They are systemic failures embedded not just in the technological foundations of the system and the platforming (which now seems to be the party line) but also in the process and decision making within. Originally, we were told by the LAA that it was “us” that were apparently causing the problems. Internet speed, our servers, our choice of browser, our computer system, blah blah blah ad infinitum. I’ve already dealt with those assertions in previous blog posts and roundly dismiss them as complete hogwash.

Now, the LAA party line seems to be “It’s not CCMS that is causing the problem, it’s the Ministry of Justice Portal that is the problem”. The LAA is now apparently part of the MOJ family (and you don’t have to listen to me about that, this is what I have heard senior Officers in the LAA say directly), but it is the MoJ portal creating the problem, not the LAA and not CCMS. There are grains of truth in that because the system is still unstable and fractious. However, it is not the MoJ portal that is:-

• preventing us from exercising the delegated powers we have under the terms of our contract with the LAA;

• forcing us to lie in the application process (in breach of our professional obligations) in order to move through the application screens and ‘explain it later’ as we have been encouraged – by the LAA – to do; that’s a big call, but it’s true and very troubling. For example, in a recent case, I could not confirm to the LAA in my client’s application that I had a copy of the pleadings issued against him. Simply, my client had not been served with the Pleadings. My client knew about the imminent hearing because of a letter from his landlord telling him what they intended to seek at the hearing. So, in answer to the question “Do you have a copy of the pleadings?”, if I ticked “no” I cannot proceed with the application so I am forced to lie. I have to tick “yes” and move on through the form answering other queries along the way including the date the proceedings against my client were issued (I don’t know; If I leave the box blank, I cannot proceed). We are also forced to lie in cases involving anyone who does not live in “conventional” housing as whilst the drop down list in the CCMS application includes “flat” and “maisonette”, it doesn’t include “caravan” or “boat”, and unless you select one from the dropdown list you cannot continue with your application. Of course this feeds our paranoia: they don’t want us to continue to represent Gypsies and Travellers, as they have been edited out of the application process.

• making ridiculous funding decisions owing, in my view, to automation in the application process and a fundamental lack of understanding on behalf of some LAA caseworkers. We currently have a position where an LAA caseworker has decided that there are no merits to an appeal we are dealing with. The appeal was prepared by James Stark – leading & very well respected barrister who specialises in housing law. So it’s his view/professional advice and 8 grounds of appeal versus an LAA caseworker who tells us there are insufficient merits to the appeal but fails to tell us why. Seriously, who would you go with? Besides this, it is the other side’s job to pick the appeal apart, not the LAA.

So, the automation in CCMS forces you to take a path in making an application that you really don’t want to take. I am unsure how much discretion is afforded to LAA caseworkers to override that automation, but even then there seems to be suspect decision making and an abject failure to provide any or any proper reasons.

That is not to say that we have completely clean hands in this. We have made errors – we have used wrong codes in CCMS, we have sometimes failed to fill in the information forms correctly and this too has contributed to delays and frustration. Simple errors usually require a re-working of the entire means or merits test. The LAA Caseworkers have been understanding and helpful, while also acknowledging that the problems “their end” of the system are also incredibly frustrating. People at both ends of administering the system are experiencing difficulties. I’m hopeful we will improve but also hopeful that there is recognition that foisting a system on us was not the answer – a period of time to bed in was what was required and we had precisely no time at all. Before any LAA person writes in to say “you’ve had use of the system for ages”; yes – we have, but the system we had use of for ages (branded “Original”) was quite different from the one we have had use of for the last few months (branded “Upgraded”).

So, at this precise moment, I feel that I am in a legal aid dichotomy. On one hand, I am a vociferous advocate of computer technology generally and certainly in favour of a modern, efficient and computerised system for making legal aid applications. However, on the other, I find myself being a staunch critic of CCMS in its current unstable & user unfriendly form; this makes me uncomfortably lunge towards welcoming the return of paper applications.

The benefits for legal aid practitioners of a working CCMS system – of immediacy, efficiency and certainty – could be achievable but in reality, the system is far from delivering the same. Instead, it is causing delay, providing uncertainty and is not providing the benefits or achieving the costs efficiencies that the LAA hoped that it would. It is promoting criticism, creating further institutional denial in the LAA and ongoing frustration for practitioners who just want to get on with the job and resolve the real and human problem before them. In short, CCMS is the same old multi-faceted curate’s egg now as it always has been.

Finally, a comical proposition:-

Q: I say, I say, I say, what happens when you deliver a government computer system that is outside the intended timescale, probably above budget, doesn’t work properly, contains errors of process & procedure, fails to meet the objectives of efficiency & cost savings and which needs newer technology/more investment to stabilise it?

A: You get promoted!

Boom, boom, Tish!

Unfortunately, that isn’t a joke.

Craig Keenan