A new digital legal aid billing system could lead to payment delays that will affect the viability of firms operating with little or no contingency unless ‘underlying issues’ are urgently fixed, costs lawyers have warned.

The Legal Aid Agency introduced the client cost and management system (CCMS) as an online means of submitting civil legal aid applications. It was piloted in the north-east two years ago and will become mandatory nationally in October.

The Association of Costs Lawyers, which was involved in the pilot and engaged with the LAA ‘extensively from early 2014’, said the system felt ‘less like a proper pilot and more like trial and error, only without addressing the errors’.

The association said that the CCMS hampered existing business processes, that functionality had been poorly implemented and some required functionality had been missed completely. It believes the LAA failed to engage the right external stakeholders in the system’s design and testing. It also accused the agency of being in ‘institutional denial’ about the problems.

The ACL said: ‘CCMS is supposed to reduce payment errors. But the serious challenges to system use will lead to an increase in errors on bills, which could result in an increase in payment errors.

‘Costs professionals will be unable to provide the current turnaround speeds in expediting bills. Bills will take longer to complete and likely to be held up by requests from the LAA for standard information that cannot be initially included within the bill, and are more likely to be rejected due to errors caused by process deterioration.

‘This will result in significant delays which will impact upon cashflow of providers who are already operating on profit margins that do not allow significant (if any) contingency.’ 

Law Society president Andrew Caplen said he looked forward to the LAA’s ‘urgent response’ to the report. ‘If the problems have been correctly identified, it is difficult to see how the system could currently be considered fit to become mandatory.’

Carol Storer (pictured), director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said the group was continually receiving reports from practitioners about the ‘many problems’ with the CCMS and questioned the LAA’s ability to deliver an effective system.

She said: ‘It is difficult enough to carry out legal aid work without fighting an IT system that is clunky, frustrating and, in some respects, is simply unworkable.’

The costs lawyers’ association identified problems that need to be fixed in a report endorsed by the Law Society, Legal Aid Practitioners Group and family group Resolution.

These include:

  • It is not possible to enter required information such as case background;
  • There is a lack of understanding about basics of billing such as the difference between an estimate and an actual;
  • Screens are slow to load. Only a fraction of the line items on a bill can be seen at a time and they cannot be sorted by date;
  • System errors often leave incorrect/limited funding information available to costs users via the CCMS. When errors are fixed, it takes months to do so, leaving the provider having to spend more time and effort to try and get paid.

The association’s report comes less than a month after Resolution said the CCMS would not be ‘fit for purpose’ if it was rolled out nationally in its current state.

The LAA said it had ‘worked closely with providers and have enhanced the system following feedback’. A spokesperson said a number of further key changes would be made to the CCMS before October.