The Law Society has urged the Ministry of Justice to investigate IT shortcomings and poor communication which it says caused solicitors waiting to receive new criminal legal aid contracts ‘significant stress and anxiety’.
In a letter to justice minister Sir Oliver Heald this week, Chancery Lane said a combination of IT failures, lack of communication from the Legal Aid Agency and poor timing caused delays in new crime contracts being issued and difficulties in contract schedules being uploaded.
This, in turn, caused ’significant stress and anxiety for the practitioners affected and those working for them’, Society president Robert Bourns said.
He added: ’Although the LAA announced on its website on 9 March that the contract schedules were being uploaded for signature, in fact many of the schedules were not received until some time after this date, including right up to the deadline. Even where schedules were received, a number of firms also had difficulties in uploading these to the system.’
Firms originally had until Monday 20 March to sign the 2017 crime contracts. On the afternoon of Friday 16 March, the agency announced on Twitter that the deadline had been extended to 5pm on Wednesday 22 March. However, the agency advised organisations to accept contracts as soon as possible ‘in case you encounter any technical difficulties’.
Highlighting the government’s IT shortcomings, Bourns understood that ’part of the difficulty was caused by the fact that the two LAA systems used for the contract tender and the schedule upload - Bravo and CWA - do not communicate with each other. Consequently LAA staff had to spend some time inputting data manually to the CWA system’.
It is also understood that the contract upload was scheduled for the same time that firms were also uploading their monthly bills using the same system which caused the system to be overloaded.
Bourns said: ’Had the LAA communicated more effectively with firms regarding the causes of these difficulties and delays, this would have immediately helped to alleviate the tensions that were created by firms simply not knowing what was happening, and fearing that they might lose their contracts because they were unable to comply with the LAA’s deadlines.’
A spokesperson for the ministry said: 'We have not received the letter from the Law Society. However, we can confirm 75% of applicants received their contract offer on 10 March - the day after the Legal Aid Agency announced contract schedules were being uploaded, 94% had received offers by 17 March.
'Over 99% of all contracts offered have now been accepted.'