Social Welfare Lawyers in the Centre of Birmingham

T – Minus 312 Hours

In 2013, I attended a Legal Aid Practitioners Group Conference in Manchester where CCMS was one of the main subjects up for discussion. The panel of assorted senior LAA officers told us about the CCMS pilot project. I listened and took it in. A modern way of making applications? Well, it probably could be more convenient and more efficient I thought. The LAA accepted then that there were a number of issues with the system, but were confident that they could be resolved. The message was very clear: “This is a major project…we’re committed to this…we’re spending lots of money on it…and it will become mandatory, so prepare yourselves.”

So, preparing for this is what we have been doing. It started when I completed all of the mandatory training modules. In around November/December 2014, we started to make some applications for legal aid via CCMS but the application was a convoluted process which was fraught with system errors. The common complaints were:-

• Very slow system speed;

• Being logged out unexpectedly;

• Being told that the “back/forward buttons” in a browser were not supported (even though we hadn’t used either back or forward buttons);

• System busy/not available error message;

• The system not accepting non-alphanumeric characters;

We reported these errors tirelessly to the LAA without any resolution and, as I have commented in my last post, we rarely received even a reply. There were some very helpful (sic) replies – “Try Again”; “If one browser doesn’t work, try another one”; but my particular favourite was 2 months after reporting an error “If you are still experiencing this problem, please let us know” which implied that it was our responsibility to keep chasing the technical staff to resolve a problem we had already reported. Now, just imagine you have a leak from your washing machine and you call a plumber who says they will fix it; you have no contact for 2 months and then out of the blue they say “If you are still having this problem, please let us know”. Yes, it is that ridiculous.

CCMS D-Day is 1 April 2016 and the analogy with war is deliberate. As I had commented in my previous post, we were prepared for it just like it was suggested we should be. Over the last 12 months:-

• We have installed superfast broadband and upgraded our telephony system;

• We have devised administrative systems around CCMS requirements;

• We have dedicated computer server space to store scanned documents for uploading;

• We have delivered full training to our staff;

• We have completed LAA training modules and other CCMS training;

• We have met with LAA and CCMS staff, and attended conferences to speak with others about how they are dealing with it or how they intend to deal with it;

• We have liaised with barristers’ chambers in respect of billing;

• We have arranged additional support & supervision for staff;

• We have also upgraded our file servers to cope with increased internet usage.

In the late part of 2015 and early part of 2016, there were a number of significant improvements in CCMS. Rather than seeking to recreate a legal aid application form on the screen, previously the LAA had dissected the application into various steps that made little sense. This was improved greatly where the application was broken down into modules which you could view on screen after the initial details were input. The system became quicker, it was more intuitive and had far more stability.  I was very encouraged   Given the improvements in the system, particularly since the grim days of late 2014 and early 2015 when the system was a deep & dark abyss of computerised chaos, we decided that all applications for legal aid would be compulsory in the firm for all new matters from 1 March 2016. We also decided that the only circumstances in which paper applications were to be made were in those circumstances that there was a CCMS systems failure and even then only with the authorisation of a partner. We were prepared and ready.

On 2 March 2016, we received notification that CCMS would not be available from 7pm Friday 4th March to 7am Monday 7th March, while “routine maintenance” was undertaken.   On 7 March when we returned to work after the weekend, CCMS was in error state.  Today is 18 March and it is STILL in error state.

Since 7 March 2016 we have opened 30 files and have made 28 applications for legal aid. We have not been able to complete a single application using CCMS because the system is in complete meltdown.  Getting to the log in page via the LAA portal is hard enough and often leads to an error message; we have had staff wait for up to 20 minutes to even get to the log in page; when they do get to the log in page and enter usernames and passwords, the system either fails or provides temporary access before more error messages; if we do get into the system, the system fails in the middle of us doing something. This is causing significant disruption and delay.

The LAA’s response so far has been frankly perverse “Users have continued to experience slowness when attempting to login to the Portal over the past week….we are keen to stress that these systems remain available and we are encouraging users to persevere when attempting to login through the Portal”. I called the LAA casework team on one occasion when we could not proceed due to a system error: “You can try again until the system works and submit the application within 5 working days”. This is ill thought through advice as we have to print off a CCMS application and get each client to endorse the application with a signature. If CCMS isn’t working, we would have to ask our often impecunious clients to come back to our office to sign the application within those 5 working days on the off chance that we might get to the end of the application process. To put this into context, we were approached last week by a client facing possession proceedings who had arranged for a neighbour to look after her kids for a few hours, but had spent food money on bus fare to get to us. Our clients can’t just sit there while we: wait for the LAA’s unfit system to eventually let us log on; make repeat attempts to get through the application process; report errors to the LAA’s online support team ; and convince them that we need to make a paper application as a contingency plan. Our clients have kids to pick up from school and off peak daysaver bus tickets that aren’t valid past 3.30pm which cost a lot when you have got no money.

The LAA’s attempt at producing a working system for making legal aid applications online has been beset with difficulties from the start. Presently it is unstable, error prone and unusable. It seems to us that the LAA are in denial and the need to deliver a major IT project which they have spent vast amounts of money on is a higher priority than delivering one which is working and fit for purpose.   Like other firms, we listened and we put into place all those things we needed to. However, until there is full transparency and acknowledgement from the LAA that CCMS is just not yet fit for purpose, I have no real confidence that the system ever will be.   The LAA now have 312 hours to get the system working.  Seems unlikely doesn’t it?

We call on the LAA to urgently defer D-Day until they sort all this mess out!

TWITTER: @clpsolicitors Craig Keenan/Partner  18 March 2016