The Legal Aid Agency is understood to be reviewing its costs assessment guidance after a charity's claim for time spent filling an application on the agency's online billing system was slashed from three hours to 30 minutes. The agency's client and cost management system (CCMS) has long been a source of frustration for legal aid practitioners.
Public Law Project, which has acted in several high-profile cases such as the Supreme Court challenge over the government's plans to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid eligibility, spent three hours making an application for a judicial review case.
Alison Pickup, PLP legal director, said: 'It always takes longer than 30 minutes because there are a lot of pages you have to go through and the website is very slow. Every application you make, there are a lot of questions that have to be answered. Some of the questions require more detailed information.'
Guidance for 2013, 2014 and 2015 standard civil contracts states that the 'basic time standard' for completing application forms for controlled legal representation in immigration cases and licensed work certificates is 30 minutes. The agency says 'more may be payable in complex cases, particularly if a substantial statement of case is required and where the application is for emergency legal aid or is to report a grant of emergency legal aid by delegated functions'.
Pickup said 30 minutes is not a realistic figure, even if the work is not complex.
The guidance was also published prior to the CCMS becoming mandatory in April last year. The agency pressed ahead with its compulsory use despite repeated warnings about the system's performance and reliability.
Shaun McNally, LAA chief executive, told a Legal Aid Practitioners Group conference in October that he was fully aware of solicitors' frustrations and even had a customer service team on the day to help with CCMS issues.
After originally applying to the agency for a 'points of principle of general importance' statement to clarify existing contract provisions or guidance in relation to assessing costs, PLP says the agency 'has now agreed to make further enquiries and to review the relevant provisions of the guidance in light of its findings and the points made by PLP'.
The agency has been approached for comment.
Meanwhile the LAA has outlined, in fresh guidance, a standard file process when submitting work for online and paper civil billing 'for more efficient processing of your work'.
The agency asks practitioners to submit a main file of both online and paper files in the following chronological order: correspondence, letters in and out, phone calls, emails, attendance notes and court attendance notes.
There should be a separate folder for, in chronological order: disbursement vouchers, court bundle, means evidence, legal help form, domestic violence evidence (where applicable) and experts' reports.