The Legal Services Commission was forced to shut down its new online payment system for legal aid scheme lawyers indefinitely, just a fortnight after launch, ministers have admitted.
The collapse of LSC Online comes as the commission is already struggling to keep solicitors working on legal aid cases. Experienced lawyers are turning away from legal aid work, angered by a shake-up that threatens to cut pay rates.
LSC Online – part of a £5m overhaul of the commission’s IT systems – went live on 5 November 2007. It was designed to increase efficiency by allowing law firms to submit claims for legal aid work electronically, and have the data checked for errors and omissions before the submission is completed.
Other developments to the Oracle-based system were set to give law firms online access to their financial statements and performance data.
But the service was suspended indefinitely on 19 November after lawyers reported problems trying to log into the system to submit claims for October’s legal aid work.
Justice minister Maria Eagle admitted: “Although the system was tested prior to implementation, it was only when it was loaded with live data that extensive problems became apparent.”
The LSC was working with its IT suppliers Oracle and Steria to resolve the problems, she said in response to parliamentary questions.
The continued unavailability of the system has caused knock-on problems for the commission. Law firms were asked to submit their October and November 2007 claims via a bulk-load spreadsheet or, in exceptional cases, on paper.
But in a letter sent to lawyers ahead of the January claims deadline, the LSC said these submissions – which unlike online claims, could not be automatically checked as they were made - had contained “an unexpectedly high proportion” of errors, leading to “very high” claim rejection rates.