Inspectors welcome improvements in Criminal Legal Aid Processing

An inspection on how the Legal Services Agency in Northern Ireland (LSANI) is using its IT system to process legal aid payments to solicitors and barristers has identified improvements in its efficiency and effectiveness.
“This inspection looked at how effective the IT investment in the Legal Aid Management System (LAMS) implemented in 2019 and costing £9.7m by October 2021 was in processing payments, cutting running costs, providing better statistics and management information to the LSANI, the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the legal profession,” said CJI Chief Inspector Jacqui Durkin.
“Inspectors found that since the LAMS IT system was implemented LSANI staffing levels and annual operating costs had reduced.  The LSANI had reduced its payment error rates and its Counter Fraud Unit had been working hard on the reporting, investigating and identifying potential areas of fraud.  We also found the efficiency and effectiveness of the LAMS and the LSANI staff who operated it were impacted by the availability of Legal Aid funding, with targets and processing times being extended to match the available funding,” she said.
The Chief Inspector welcomed the progress made so far but said there is scope for further improvement.  Inspectors have made three strategic and three operational recommendations to support this.
“We have recommended the DoJ and LSANI should carry out a review of cases where cases involving unusual or novel points of law or factual issues, known as Exceptional Preparation and that the Agency should update its LAMS guidance and develop a training strategy and an action plan for staff and implement a job description for the LAMS Support Manager role,” she said.
She also urged the Public Prosecution Service and the DoJ to provide the Legal Services Agency 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. In addition Inspectors also recommended the LSANI should develop a strategy to prevent, detect and respond to fraud and an operational plan for its delivery.
“I am pleased all recommendations have been accepted and action plans developed to support the LSANI to deliver better services and efficiencies in the future,” concluded Ms Durkin.