Social Welfare Lawyers in the Centre of Birmingham

Computer Says No

Computer Says No

The Legal Aid Agency (“the LAA”)  announced some time ago that it would be introducing a Client & Costs Management System (“CCMS”) by which practitioners would make applications for legal aid online as a replacement for the current system of paper application forms. Following a pilot scheme in the North East starting Autumn 2012, the system was rolled out nationally. CLP began to use the system in late 2014 to give ourselves 10 or so months to prepare for the date of mandatory use being October 2015.

Unfortunately, the system was so error prone, slow, fractious and so incredibly frustrating that after a handful of applications we stopped using it altogether.  We complained to the LAA rather forcefully at the beginning of 2015 – we provided evidence of the errors; we reported problems to the technical support team and rarely received a reply; we wrote reports for them and further responded to their responses which didn’t ever really resolve the issues we had raised.

On reflection, the truth of the matter was that we were spending more time collating evidence of the numerous issues and problems with the system than actually advising the people the system was set to serve – our clients! Our complaints to the LAA culminated in a meeting with our account manager, an LAA caseworker and a CCMS expert who – to show us how it could be done – supervised the input of an application for one of our clients. That application was rejected a few hours later! So, if the combined expertise of the LAA Officers couldn’t get it right, what chance did we stand?

Moving forwards, the LAA announced some time during mid 2015 that they would delay mandating the system from October 2015 to February 2016 after publicising that they had “listened” to suppliers and wanted to work with us to deliver further “enhancements”. They may well have called them enhancements,  but that is to suggest that CCMS worked in the first place and was being improved.  The enhancements didn’t work and the LAA then further delayed mandating the system to 1 April 2016 which I now refer to as CCMS D-Day – just 23 days away.

CCMS has certainly improved since the version we started using in 2014. It is generally quicker (but only just), definitely easier to navigate because there has been an attempt to replicate a paper application online and as a result it is more intuitive. A new ‘upgraded’ system (said to be compatible with modern internet browsers) was introduced in early 2016 which seemed stable and quicker. Encouraged by these improvements, we rolled out a training programme for all of our fee earning staff in February 2016 with the idea that all of our applications from 1 March 2016 would be by way of CCMS. In that training programme, I set out a number of rules for our staff which included the following:-

1. The transition from paper applications to CCMS applications will not be smooth or seamless, you will not like it and it will take time to familiarise yourself with it.

2. Despite recent improvement, CCMS is still prone to errors. All we can do is to try to avoid the errors by using it as efficiently as possible and minimising the time we spend using it.

Despite rule number 1, I was confident that our staff could adapt and familiarise themselves with the system. In regards to rule 2, I was still both positive and optimistic because I believed that CCMS had turned the functionality corner after such error ridden beginnings. In any event, with the CCMS D-Day approaching, you would think that this rather expensive (if you consider £69 million to be expensive?) IT project was up, running and ready for action wouldn’t you?

This is where things get a little messy.

Despite the “enhancements”, despite the boasts of more & more CCMS users and the record number of CCMS applications made in one week in January 2016, the system needs urgent improvement. So urgent in fact, it needs sorting out in exactly 23 days because, at present, it is still error prone, it is still slow, it is still fractious and it is still incredibly frustrating. It is also still failing our clients.

While the last few weeks have thrown up intermittent errors (e.g. being logged out of the system unexpectedly, not being able to log in, various error codes and just the minor problem of having to quite brazenly lie when completing the online form – I should clarify that this lying is openly endorsed by the LAA too because of the lack of tick boxes on the system). The last few days have been a frustrating experience of delays, a system failure, repeated system errors, other problems and moreover have meant that we have had to revert to using paper applications once more. The reason for this is that CCMS has not been available for us to make applications online in its error state. The contingency is to make paper applications or ‘wait until the system is working and submitting online applications within 5 days’. This is absolutely shocking because however time consuming and frustrating it is for us, we are struggling to contemplate what it will mean for the clients we serve – the vulnerable, the homeless, those threatened with eviction and those living in dangerous conditions.

I have set out below the errors that we have reported over the last few days and will post updates via our Twitter account. The system needs a fixer because right now, it still doesn’t appear to be fit for purpose.

7 March 2016 CCMS is not allowing users to log in.

We attempted logging in from our office; 2 of us attempted to log in from our separate home addresses with different ISPs with no joy; we also tried to access the site via a mobile phone data network to no avail. We provided screen shots for the technical team and at 7.08pm received a reply confirming that they were “experiencing some technical issues with the Online Portal today which is impacting on CCMS”  and were “working to resolve these issues”. We were asked to “try to use the system again later”. They didn’t say how much later.

8 March 2016 CCMS is not allowing users to log in/letting some users in after 20-30 minutes & repeated attempts.    We attempted logging in from our office and from a  home address. No joy for an hour or so as upon entering username, password and pressing “OK”, the system ‘hangs’. One of us tried repeatedly to log in and after ‘hanging’ for 20 minutes, went through to the portal.  Another one of us attempted to log in 5 times in 30 minutes before finally being let in.

Upon calling Customer Services as suggested by a scrolling message on screen, they were unaware of “any problems with the portal”. The problems have, however, persisted from 9am until 4.53pm.

 TWITTER: @clpsolicitors

Craig Keenan/Partner  9 March 2016