The Legal Aid Agency has been testing technology that enables it to inspect a client’s bank account to speed up assessments of financial means. Malcolm Bryant, head of high cost civil complex cases, told the Gazette that the ‘open banking technology’ was tested in a safe environment and the agency is now ‘moving to some live cases’.

Bryant spoke about the project at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum on legal aid this morning. The project is part of the agency’s ‘transformation programme’, a blueprint for what the agency wants to look like by 2020. Bryant said UK citizens are much more digital now than they have ever been and the agency must ensure it can mirror their digital expectations.

The agency’s client and cost management system was ‘more successful in the billing arena than in the application process’, Bryant told the forum. The agency decided to test open banking technology after clients said they no longer receive paper pay slips and bank statements and questioned why they could not transfer the information digitally to the agency.

Legal aid case workers will be able to access a client’s bank account for a ‘small period of time’, obtain the relevant information and make an assessment ‘almost instantaneously’.

Speaking to the Gazette after the event, Bryant said the technology has been tested with civil users who have one job and one bank account. Caseworkers are able to see the last three months of the bank statement. The agency will test the technology and see how it works. If it is successful, the agency will look at how it could be expanded. Asked what the feedback had been, Bryant said the clients ‘loved it’.

A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson told the Gazette: 'By 2020 we want to simplify the delivery of legal aid by providing a modern digital service that is easy to access and simple to administer, and one area we are piloting at the moment is open banking technology. We want to make it easier for people to prove their eligibility for legal aid.'

The agency said the purpose of the initiative is to improve the efficiency of the means test process by being able to access transaction data directly through applicants' online banking, thereby removing the need for scanned bank statements. The scheme is being regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. The agency will not access bank statements without the account owner's consent.

Bryant told the conference that the agency is keen to have a ‘partnership relationship’ with providers, and is exploring ways to reduce administrative burdens for everyone.

The agency is piloting a reduction of ‘touch points’ in applications, reducing end-to-end processing times by, for instance, moving to average cost limits for some high cost cases. Potentially adopting a ‘risk-based approach’ could reduce the number of contract interventions. 

The Ministry of Justice has pledged £5m for ‘innovative’ forms of legal support after reviewing the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Nick Goodwin, the Ministry of Justice’s director of access to justice policy, told the event that £5m was ‘a lot’ for an innovation fund and that the department intends to hold a conference this summer.