The big change since our last newsletter is that the LAA brought in online submissions with effect from the March submission which was due by 10th April. Although we had been told that they would be bringing this in for some time the start date kept getting pushed back. It was perhaps unfortunate to say the least that we were only told of the requirement to submit the April return online after 5 pm on 31st March which for many was particularly bad timing because of the Easter holidays. The holidays meant services were unable to contact the LAA for support as, of course, their offices were closed over the bank holidays, many contract managers were on holiday and also many of our members had planned holidays themselves.
It had not been made clear whether online submissions were mandatory. We at the FMA made immediate contact with the LAA and were able to clarify and inform members of the e-group that unfortunately it was.
So, many of us found ourselves in positions where we had been given no login details with password and most of us found ourselves struggling with the technology. I know I had not received a username or password. I managed to obtain one from the online support team but then found it wasn’t quite as simple as that, as I needed to then give myself administrative privileges which all took time on the system. I consider myself to be quite technology savvy but did not find the online portal user-friendly.
Services without a case management system seem to have been worst affected by the changes and we have had reports of some needing to upgrade computer software, buy in extra admin help and lots saying how much extra work was needed. Others had problems and were going round in circles to get login details. One service after a lot of extra work made the submission but was then paid twice – sounds good but in reality extra work and more hassle.
Hopefully things will settle down and we will get more used to the system. It is unfortunate that there was not more guidance issued and not more notice given, particularly bearing in mind that our aim is to be “working in partnership” with the LAA. More advance information from LAA would have enabled us to submit their returns more efficiently, saving a considerable amount of LAA time but also reducing the stress that many of us were placed under.
Free first meeting
Many members have made negative comments. We are hearing that mediators are being put under pressure to resolve matters in just one meeting. Many report problems with private clients being reluctant to pay for MOUs. Many find private work is having to subsidise legal aid. Overheads are still increasing but there has been no fee increase. We also hear that legal aid clients do not always value the process and cancel at short notice or simply don’t turn up at all.
For more from Sue West on Legal Aid, in particular on eligibility and audits, click here.
Eligibility and Audits
This is still causing members great concern. Recent issues that have been raised are:
LAA funded MIAMs
Some services report that on audits they have been picked up and claw backs imposed if the private client has been seen before the legal aid client. The policy of services has been to refund the private clients’ MIAM fee and of course since November his/her first meeting has been paid for as well. Indeed both the Resolve IT and Progress case management systems are set up to claim the fee in this way. One service reports that a claw back is being requested to April 2013. For many of our members this would be absolutely devastating and coupled with the pressures we are all under, the first free mediation meeting is likely to result in further closures.
On the other hand, some other services report that this has not been raised as an issue on audits, even though they are actually refunding the private client and claiming the MIAM payment from the LAA. There are clearly inconsistencies on audits regarding this.
Our chair Beverley Sayers has on the FMA’s behalf, together with the representatives of the other MO’s at the FMC, raised a number of questions, including this particularly important issue, with Eleanor Drucker of the LAA and as soon as replies are received we will feedback the answers through the e-group.
Significant legal dispute
Members are also reporting issues being raised at audits about “significant legal dispute”. There is no definition of significant. Members are worried that this may mean claw backs are made. Again this is an issue on which we are seeking clarification.
Join our E-group
If you are not already a member of the e-group but wish to be informed of any developments, want to share experiences or have a bit of a rant to let off steam email me at firstname.lastname@example.org