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Win-win situation

19 April 10

Paper-based legal aid applications are due to be phased out, and firms are already benefiting from transacting online, which is easy to get started in

by Scottish Legal Aid Board

By the end of March 2011 legal aid firms in Scotland will be doing virtually all their business with the Scottish Legal Aid Board online.

The switch to online is part of the Board’s drive to make the legal aid system as efficient as possible, particularly as public finances become increasingly tight, according to chief executive Lindsay Montgomery CBE. He explains: “It will generate staff savings and reduce the cost to the taxpayer of our administration. It will also speed up the process for the courts and applicants, as well as providing efficiencies and economies for the profession. This is good news for legal aid in Scotland and the feedback from firms has been very positive.”

Since its initial piloting in 2005, uptake amongst firms has been growing steadily, with a substantial increase over the past year:

  • 67% of legal aid firms now use legal aid online;
  • over 70% of all advice and assistance applications are now made online instead of on paper;
  • over 40% of civil legal aid applications and summary criminal legal aid applications are now made online, since their launch in September last year.

Rapid expansion

Currently, the following can be done online:

  • grants of advice and assistance/ABWOR;
  • applications for ABWOR increase;
  • applications for summary criminal legal aid;
  • applications for civil legal aid;
  • applications for sanction and other post-grant work in a civil or criminal case (regardless of whether you submitted the original application online);
  • advice and assistance or ABWOR accounts.

The Board are rapidly extending the services so during the spring and summer of 2010 all the core services for civil legal aid, summary criminal legal aid and applications for sanction in solemn criminal legal aid will be available online, as will children’s and the rest of solemn criminal legal aid – in time for the transfer of decision making in solemn criminal cases to the Board.

Diane Ireland, the Board’s online marketing manager says the system brings huge benefits both to firms and to the administration of legal aid. “Those firms that are already on board tell me that they would never go back to paper based applications and wish they’d made the switch to online sooner.”

She continues: “I believe that those firms that use online now can be more efficient, which is welcome particularly in a tougher economic climate. It reduces the need for firms’ staff to be tied up in paper processing. The service offers faster processing of applications and accounts, quicker decisions, faster payments and of course less paperwork. For example, paper based accounts take 30 days, whilst online it’s just 15 days, and in some cases it’s in the next payment run. That’s a real benefit to any firm’s cash flow.”

Fast and flexible

The immediacy of the system offers other advantages. There are instant acknowledgments of advice and assistance grants and increases, and sanction templates. There is anecdotal evidence from criminal solicitors that they have seen a client, then gone back to their office (or home), sent in an application, got an instant grant and then been able to request payment. The system also enhances a firm’s customer service, with better access to information and quicker delivery of legal aid decisions for clients.

Diane Ireland also emphasises the system’s flexibility. “You can use it anywhere, anytime; solicitors can get through a lot of work before getting to the office. We even had one application come in at 7am on 1 January! The sooner firms start, the sooner they can reap the benefits, plus staff can build up experience before the deadline and make the best use of our support.”

User approval

Practitioners who have made the switch include Stuart Munro, partner at Livingstone Brown. “My firm has been keen to work with SLAB in its development of online systems from the very outset”, he says. “We have long recognised the major benefits that an efficient system could offer. The current version is well designed, easy to use, fast and effective. The system requires no special IT equipment – a standard PC with a broadband connection works fine – and can easily be set up by staff.

“SLAB Online is used by all staff in our firm, and is popular amongst everyone. Paper applications are now extremely rare. The firm benefits from the reduced paperwork and much faster decision making. We are relaxed about the forthcoming paper switch-off, and in the meantime look forward to the integration with case management systems so that our accounts can be submitted online. I have no hesitation in recommending other firms to use SLAB Online – once tried, there’s no going back.”

Sole practitioner Vincent McGovern at McGovern & Co has also embraced the SLAB online services. “We found it easy to set up, with advice and help readily available”, he comments. “There is a real saving in administrative time and bureaucracy, along with cost benefits such as stationary, postage etc, and cash flow has improved from an already strong position. We wholly support the change to replace the ‘dead tree’ system.”

McGovern’s legal secretary Mharia Leel adds: “The set-up is very easy and there are people at the end of a phone who can talk you through any problems. It’s very easy to use and follows the layout of the paper forms. Applications are granted and any queries rectified much quicker than via paper. Online is more effective and I’d encourage firms to start using it straight away.”

So how do you get your firm started? Diane Ireland insists it’s easy to set up. “Firms just need a basic PC with internet access. You simply fill out a form to register your interest; we then contact your nominated firm administrator and set up their access to the system. All staff involved can then use an easy online learning pack to get familiar with the system. We’re also happy to visit firms to give demonstrations and to set up training.

“There are no ongoing costs and it all links to the Board’s systems, with assured security including data protection, data storage and disaster recovery. You’re up and running in minutes. We’ll continue to work closely with the profession to ensure that the transition from paper to online systems is as smooth and simple as possible. The training and support is there: firms just have to come forward and take advantage of it.”

The Board also continues to upgrade the system through its use of user groups. Later in 2010 the Board will pilot integration with firms’ own case management systems and third party access (for example, to law accountants).

By the end of the year it will also provide applicant access for those who have geared up to allow applicants to submit forms directly, for example the Civil Legal Aid Financial Form 2.

  • Want to get your firm working with Legal Aid Online? Contact Diane Ireland on 0131 240 2013 or email irelanddi@slab.org.uk

Legal aid online benefits

The service offers:

  • faster processing of applications and payments
  • quicker decisions – on submission
  • faster payments, so improving your cash flow
  • less paperwork
  • access at any time from anywhere – suits how you work.

Legal Aid Online features:

  • automatic form filling of previously given information
  • correct data input first time, so fewer errors, queries and delays
  • administrative staff can complete forms and forward to partners for approval if necessary
  • quick access to the latest versions of the forms/keycards etc
  • better form management – save and retrieve forms, track progress of submitted forms
  • automatic calculation of financial eligibility and fees
  • track progress from initial application to payment, with information on all contact and decisions made
  • ready made increase and sanction templates – means less keying
  • simplified form (mandate) for getting your client’s signature
  • helpline and email facility.

For charts and diagrams please refer to magazine or download PDF.

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