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What next for the CCMS?

Chris Minnoch, operations director at the Legal Aid Practitioner’s Group, discusses the results of a survey on the working of the Legal Aid Agency’s Client and Cost Management System (CCMS) and finds that although it continues to pose a plethora of problems on a daily basis, practitioners do not want to go back to paper.

‘Submitting both applications and bills using the CCMS, saves providers time … Over the course of 2015-16, a number of enhancements were made to the system for the benefit of users.’
LAA Annual Report and Accounts 2015-16

When completing/submitting a legal aid application, how does CCMS compare to the old paper-based system?
CCMS takes less time – 9%
The two systems are about the same – 10%
CCMS takes more time – 81%
LAPG CCMS survey, February – March 2017


Time is money, said Benjamin Franklin, who was many things but wasn’t a legal aid lawyer. He was right, of course, and this idiom can be applied equally across different sectors and professions. However legal aid lawyers are paid at uneconomic hourly rates that, at best, haven’t kept pace with overheads for the last 20 years. They are expected to do unpaid work for vulnerable and challenging clients. They deal with constant policy change and unwieldy bureaucracy. So time really is money for legal aid lawyers, it’s just not very much money for the time it takes to provide a quality service and meet professional standards and contractual obligations.

So when the then LSC announced that legal aid applications and billing would move online to improve efficiency and reliability, most legal aid lawyers greeted the news with the muted enthusiasm that tends to accompany news of a major government IT project.

CCMS came into being following four years of development which included a pilot phase with 45 providers in the North East, a gradual, voluntary roll-out and a delay to the initial ‘go live’ date because providers and representative bodies raised serious concerns about the system. And while no one can doubt that CCMS had improved by the mandatory use date of April 2016, providers still regularly contact us to vent their frustration at the system. We have worked constructively with the LAA/LSC throughout this time to help them understand our members’ concerns, and a large number of enhancements have been introduced.

But our members tell us that they are struggling daily with a host of issues affecting CCMS which hamper their ability to help their clients. Some are even reporting that CCMS is so dysfunctional that it is putting their businesses at risk. So, in March this year, we surveyed users to gauge their experiences of the system since January 2017.

When designing the survey we asked experienced CCMS users to outline their main causes of concern. We were astounded at the number of issues raised. By the time the survey went live it was almost as long and complex as CCMS itself, which probably highlights two issues: (1) the civil legal aid system is horribly complex and (2) when the LAA designed CCMS they missed a trick and replicated rather than simplified the system.

And this is probably one of the main threads running through all of the feedback we received — when systems move into the digital age, users quite rightly expect any online application to be faster, more intuitive, more user-friendly and simpler than the manual system it has replaced. The survey responses tend to suggest that this just is not the case with CCMS.

Here’s a snapshot of our findings following over 400 responses to the survey.

While the survey was necessarily lengthy to capture the complexity of CCMS, it finished with two simple questions designed to find out (1) what needs to improve and (2) what’s currently working well. The responses to these two questions are quite revealing.

To the first, we received 616 suggestions for improvement (having only asked people to give us their top three gripes). To the second, 309 examples were given of what is working well, while another 77 used this section to tell us nothing is working well. It is clear from the survey results that many practitioners are interacting well with the system and the LAA has reported that thousands of applications and bills are being processed within their routine target times. But even an initial reading of the survey data shows that CCMS has a long way to go before it meets the needs of practitioners and the clients they strive to serve.

What needs to change? These are the most common issues raised by respondents:

  • Access – difficulty logging on, either because CCMS or the LAA Online portal won’t respond or is completely down
  • Speed – the dreaded hanging circle when moving between pages and the overall time to compete processes, many of which now take longer than the paper system and exceed the time allowable in billing guidance
  • Reliability – freezing, getting kicked out, losing data or no record of documents that have been uploaded
  • Navigation between screens – taking too long or having to go through unnecessary screens
  • Duplication and unnecessary questions
  • Other design issues – for example drop down menus not containing all the necessary options
  • Access to help and support – inconsistent advice, lack of training for those responding, time delays in receiving a response and the quality of the responses
  • Processing times – waiting too long for a response and finding that information that has already been submitted is then requested again
  • Illogical processes – i.e. having to wait for supporting documents to be requested when the fee earner knows what needs to be uploaded
  • Repetition when amending – having to re-complete elements that are not relevant to the amendment
  • Urgent cases – there is a real issue with waiting for responses in urgent or emergency cases, particularly when dealing with extremely vulnerable clients and cases nearing a court-imposed time-limit

What’s working well? These are the most common aspects highlighted by respondents:

  • Claims for Payments on Account
  • Submitting bills (although many respondents raised issues when needing to amend a bill)
  • Receiving email notifications
  • Checking entitlement for those on passporting benefits through direct link with the DWP
  • Allocating costs to counsel
  • Uploading and downloading documents
  • Non-means, non-merits cases such as Special Children Act cases
  • Generally helpful staff on the telephone helpline
  • Billing fixed fee cases
  • Automated confirmations (that applications have been submitted for example)
  • Reducing postage costs, paper use and the chances of documents going missing
  • Easy access to key data such as cost and scope limitations

Other interesting points from our initial data analysis:

Who answered the survey?

Respondents came from 207 different firms/organisations. Five respondents did not provide a firm/organisation name.

Answer Options Response % Response No.
Solicitor/Legal Executive 36.4% 152
Partner/Director 13.9% 58
Paralegal 13.9% 58
Admin/support staff 11.0% 46
Costs lawyer/draftsperson 9.1% 38
Accounts staff/billing clerk 7.4% 31
Trainee solicitor/Trainee Legal Executive 5.0% 21
Non-fee earning manager (e.g. practice manager) 1.9% 8
Other 0.9% 4
Barrister 0.5% 2
answered question 418
skipped question 0

How often do you use CCMS in your ‘typical week’?

The majority of respondents are frequent and experienced CCMS users, which suggests that many of the problems encountered cannot be easily explained away through user error or lack of familiarity with the system (although we did not ask whether respondents had completed all of the online training available from the LAA). 

Answer Options Response % Response No.
0-1 hours per week 17.3% 41
2-5 hours per week 41.4% 98
5-10 hours per week 23.2% 55
More than 10 hours per week 18.1% 43
answered question 237
skipped question 181

Since 1 January 2017, have you experienced any of the following problems in relation to the stability of the system? (multiple answers accepted)

The sheer frequency of stability/functional issues, as shown below, is something regularly reported to us by members. They reports that this affects productivity, morale and the ability to provide a consistent service to clients in highly stressful and often volatile situations. Only 3% of respondents had never experienced a problem in relation to stability. 

Answer Options Response % Response No.
Delay in accessing or inability to access the portal (LAA Online) 86.9% 206
Delay in accessing or inability to access CCMS 84.4% 200
Being forced/thrown out of CCMS 71.3% 169
Hanging or delay when moving within the system 69.2% 164
System busy message 57.4% 136
Other (please explain below) 6.8% 16
No I have never experienced a problem in relation to stability 3.0% 7
answered question 237
skipped question 181

In terms of decision-making, is CCMS faster or slower than the old paper-based system?

The majority of respondents making emergency and substantive applications felt that it actually takes more time to receive a decision via CCMS than the old paper-based system.

CCMS is faster – 26% The two systems are about the same – 23% CCMS is slower – 51%

The situation for amendments appears even more frustrating for respondents – 56% think CCMS is slower than the old system and only 17% think it is quicker.

Note however almost half (48%) of respondents who use the billing/POA functions think CCMS decision-making is quicker than the old system, with 32% noting that it is slower.

Have you ever claimed for all the time it takes you to complete processes on CCMS? If so, what has been the outcome of your claims? (tick all that apply)

The majority of respondents noted that CCMS takes up more of their time than the paper-based system, yet the vast majority (78%) are not being paid in full for this time, raising further questions about the economic impact of CCMS. 

Answer Options Response % Response No.
Time included in bill and paid in full 28.3% 26
Time included in bill and paid in part 30.4% 28
Time included in bill and reduced to maximum level in guidance 47.8% 44
Ex gratia claim paid in full 2.2% 2
Ex gratia claim paid in part 1.1% 1
Ex gratia claim rejected 4.3% 4
answered question 92
skipped question 326

Have you ever made a formal complaint to try to resolve a CCMS issue?

Despite the raft of issues reported via the survey, most respondents are not using formal complaints processes, with many relying on informal processes and ‘work-arounds’. 

Answer Options Response % Response No.
No 82.3% 195
Yes 17.7% 42
answered question 237
skipped question 181

So where next with the survey data?

With over 400 responses, many of which provide detailed outlines of case-specific problems, it will take some time to analyse the data in full. The data set is so large that we have learned that there is a finite number of columns in an Excel spreadsheet. A huge thank you to all those providers who spent their valuable time completing the survey. We’re in the process of looking at the detailed examples provided in relation to the means, merits, billing/POA and amendment processes and will continue to raise issues directly with the LAA where appropriate.

We have provided the LAA with anonymised data and are currently awaiting a reply to our meeting request to discuss headline issues. We also plan to raise CCMS as a live issue for the LASPO review. Ultimately, the point of the survey was to gather the data we needed to push for improvements in the system. Most of our members tell us they do not want to go back to a paper system. They want an IT system that works well and minimises the amount of admin that takes them away from their legal work.

We’ll keep legal aid providers updated on our progress and welcome any further examples of what’s working and what’s not with CCMS.

 

 

Chris Minnoch

About Chris Minnoch

Chris Minnoch is operations director at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group

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