Criminal Legal Aid Processing: The effectiveness of the Legal Aid Management System in supporting the achievement of strategic business objectives and improved service delivery

Publication: 22/06/22
Front cover of Criminal Legal Aid Processing report
Improvements in processing of Legal Aid payments ‘hampered’ by availability of Legal Aid funding

An inspection of how the Legal Services Agency Northern Ireland (LSANI) administers criminal Legal Aid payments to solicitors and barristers has found the introduction of new information technology has improved how payments are made and reduced running costs.
Inspectors from Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) looked at the effectiveness of the £9.7 million pound Legal Aid Management System (LAMS).

“Inspectors found that since its introduction in July 2019, the LAMS had helped deliver £1.4m of savings in staff and annual operating costs,” said Jacqui Durkin, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland.

“Significant progress had been made by the LSANI to reduce the level of error in payments made to suppliers of legal services, establish effective systems for reporting and investigating fraud and more accurately estimate the money needed to cover a probable future expense, known as provisions, by closing inactive cases.” said Ms Durkin.

However the Chief Inspector said there was a risk that some of the benefits of investing in better systems, staff training, performance monitoring and achieving targets, were hampered by the availability of sufficient Legal Aid funding when it was required to meet solicitors and barristers’ claims that were due for payment.

Inspectors found evidence that in the first nine months since the LAMS was implemented, the average time taken to process criminal payments had improved.  However processing times slipped in 2020-21 and the first six months of 2021-22 in part due to the impact of insufficient Legal Aid funding.

“In 2020-21 the LSANI had set a target of making 95% of criminal legal aid payments within eight weeks in place.  This target was increased in 2021-22 to 95% of payments being made within 12 weeks due to the lack of sufficient funds,” said Ms Durkin.

“We welcome the positive changes delivered to date and have made three strategic and three operational recommendations in this report to help support further improvements in service delivery and maximise the capabilities enabled by the new technology,” said the Chief Inspector.

Inspectors have recommended the Department of Justice and LSANI should commence a review of Exceptional Preparation, that is, work substantially in excess of the amount done for similar cases because the case involved a very unusual or novel point of law or factual issue, as applications had increased significantly and costs risen by 154% between 2018-19 and 2020-21 with a direct impact on Criminal Legal Aid processing.

“We also recommend that within the next six months the LSANI should develop a training strategy and an action plan to improve the delivery of training to support LSANI staff to deliver further efficiencies in Criminal Legal Aid processing and get the most benefit from the LAMS system.  All relevant guidance for Criminal Legal Aid processing, the LAMS and LAMS Support should also be updated by the end of 2022,” said Ms Durkin.

To support ongoing work to prevent fraud, Inspectors have recommended that within the next nine months the LSANI should develop a strategy to prevent, detect and respond to fraud and an operational plan for its delivery. This should clearly communicate the LSANI’s stance on fraud and the processes to deal with it effectively.

Inspectors also called for the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland and the Department of Justice to provide the LSANI with a list categorising the different types of criminal offences where Legal Aid can be paid that can be updated as new offences are introduced.

“This would enable LSANI staff to have access to information on the seriousness of the different types of offences which in turn, would help maintain the accuracy of payments being made to solicitors and barristers,” concluded Ms Durkin.