The UK's Legal Software Suppliers Association (LSSA) has made a formal response to the Carter proposals for changing the way legal aid work is funded. The LSSA response is reproduced below in full and without additional comment…

The Legal Software Suppliers Association (LSSA) is the UK industry body for legal systems suppliers. For the past twelve years we have represented the majority of the leading UK legal software suppliers. We aim to both set and maintain professional standards within the industry.  

As an association, our software is in use in excess of 75% of firms in private practice.  A recent survey of member firms has shown that collectively our legal aid software is used by 87% of all firms who undertake publicly funded work in England and Wales.

We welcome the opportunity to send you our views.  Our comments are purely with regard to the mechanics and practicalities of developing systems required to support the changes rather than the details.

We note that there is a strong emphasis on IT throughout Lord Carter’s review and subsequent documentation issued by the DCA and LSC.  Indeed, we note that the proposed new Unified Contract specifies that

‘… in order to do business with the LSC providers they must be able to communicate with us electronically’.  

It is imperative that solicitors and legal aid providers have the right tools with which to implement the schemes, including the right software.  A significant number of the proposals will require major changes to software.  We therefore need to be given sufficient time to design, programme, test and document our systems prior to delivery to the solicitor practices – there would then be a need for training and procedural adjustment within those firms.  

We note that the LSC is due to publish the change to all fee structures in November 2006, to be implemented in April 2007.  This does not give our members sufficient time to absorb and reflect upon the contents of the published documentation.  We need to write the software specifications, programme the software, test and disseminate information about the changes in-house as well as write user guides and manuals etc.  In addition, we need to release the software to solicitors and legal aid providers and then undertake training.  

If the LSC anticipates finalising the details of the scheme at the end of November 2006 we only have four months to complete this work if the software is to be with the solicitors and legal aid providers by March 2007.   Furthermore, these four months happen to cover the Christmas and New Year period.  This is an unrealistic and un-achievable timeframe and does not take into account any delays in publication by the LSC nor, as has already happened with the early cover changes, any late amendments to the rules/regulations.

Once the LSC has the requisite IT systems in-house, it should be possible for some of the monitoring and quality checks to be carried out electronically and, indeed, we note the encouragement given throughout Lord Carter’s review for this.  We are confident that our software would contain such capabilities. We are pleased to see that Lord Carter recognises that

‘… the most regularly identified advantage is access to advanced information technology systems’.  

He goes on further to state that

‘All criminal legal aid firms that want to restructure to compete for contracts should be given some means of financial support.  All other firms delivering legal aid services should also be given financial incentives and advice on how to invest in modern information technology infrastructure ….’

Legal software suppliers would welcome the opportunity to establish with the LSC set criteria relating to software to enable electronic monitoring and quality checks.  Whilst we appreciate that the LSC may not wish to be seen to be endorsing any particular legal software, it is imperative that a required standard be stated and a ‘kite mark’ or equivalent be established to confirm that the software produced conforms to the standard.

Currently the only electronic transfer of information relates to the bulk uploading of the monthly claims forms (CDS6, CMRF and CMSF).  We are concerned at the considerable length of time that it has taken the LSC to achieve an acceptable schema.   This gives us grave cause for concern with regard to the future design and implementation of such a specification.

Transitional arrangements, as far as legal software is concerned, usually means functioning under the existing rules and regulations alongside the new provisions.  However, from our perspective it should be appreciated that this significantly increases the development, testing and documentation procedures as we have to ensure integrity of data and function for concurrent arrangements repeatedly and often over very short periods of time.

A further area of concern for us is the proposal to give the LSC powers to introduce contract amendments at times other than April and October.  In the event that these powers were to be exercised, the LSC should be aware of the resultant modifications to software that would be required.  All software suppliers have carefully planned release schedules and amendments given at short notice will undermine this and will impact upon meeting contractual deadlines.

Our experiences under the current contracts with regard to auditing, inspections and reviews give rise to a wide variety of interpretations.  This has led to disputes between the solicitors and the auditors sometimes forcing our members to make amendments to their software to satisfy the demands of individual auditors where there was no apparent requirement to do so.  This appears to be the result of regional interpretation which cannot be confirmed centrally.

Conclusion:

We do have serious concerns with regard to the DCA and LSC interpretation of Lord Carter’s Review and these are summarised as below:

•    The LSSA, as representative of 87% of the legal aid market, need to be made a stakeholder in any future consultations.

•    Our members need sufficient time to specify, develop, test and release software.  

•    The proposed timescales are unachievable and it is likely that solicitor and legal aid providers will not have the systems in place to comply.

•    The proposal to allow amendment to contracts at any time should be dropped.

•    There needs to be a central point for dispute resolution with regard to interpretation of LSC requirements under the contracts.  

•    It is imperative that the LSC provides a proper testing facility.

•    A ‘kite mark’ should be established for any software that complies with the new standards.

•    Following consultation with us, a long term IT strategy needs to be published with key milestones.

The LSSA would welcome the opportunity for open and timely dialogue to discuss any issues raised.