London faces legal aid 'chaos'

The Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) has warned of legal aid “chaos” in London next month when a computerised system is introduced – following a catalogue of delay, non-payment and errors made by demoralised Legal Aid Board (LAB) staff throughout the country.

The dramatic accusations, backed by the Law Society, come on the eve of the Queen's Speech this month, which will include legal aid reforms in the Modernisation of Justice Bill.

LAPG chair Richard Miller sent a furious letter to the board last week, accusing chief executive Steve Orchard of needlessly causing “enormous financial hardship” to solicitors and overworked LAB area office staff. He also predicted the Government's tight timetable of legal aid reform would “exacerbate” the problems caused by the new IT system.

Computer bugs and administrative delays have stalked the roll-out of the Corporate Information System (CIS), which is now running in every legal aid area except London.

Miller said a huge backlog of applications had built up because LAB staff could not cope with the extra workload, and this had caused a cashflow crisis for solicitors.

One victim of the administrative chaos – Cardiff sole practitioner Trudy McBride – said she had received a quarter of what the LAB owed her since August.

McBride, a recently divorced single mother with two young children, said she had applied to her area office for an emergency payment on the grounds of financial hardship, but had been told such payments could no longer be made under CIS.

The LAPG has called on Orchard to postpone the London area roll-out of CIS until the problems are resolved, to review LAB's recruitment process to raise staff morale, and to make emergency payments.

Orchard retorted that the LAPG's claims were “gross exaggerations” and refused to postpone the implementation date for London, claiming the IT systems needed to be replaced by 1 January 1999 because they were not “millennium compliant”.

Orchard admitted “isolated cases” had gone wrong, but said emergency payments had been reduced by 40 per cent since the beginning of the financial year.