Software vendors face a “car crash” of a different kind

Although the RTA Portal may have started out as a positive way of helping claimants and insurers to deal with Road Traffic Accidents, the project in its current form remains fraught with difficulties, says Steve Dixon, a member of the Legal Software Suppliers Association (LSSA).

The Ministry of Justice’s road traffic accident (RTA) information portal, the secure online data exchange that has been designed to handle hundreds of thousands of RTA personal injury claims between £1,000 and £10,000, was originally introduced as part of Ministry of Justice reforms to speed up claims and reduce their cost.

For this reason, the Portal promised to facilitate the swift, electronic exchange of all relevant claim information between lawyers and insurers in order to provide a way for key decisions to be communicated quickly and without any duplication. In theory, this streamlined flow of information between the parties involved with a case would help to reduce operational costs and enable the insurer/compensator to agree settlement more promptly.

Unfortunately, this admirable vision has come at a very high cost – both literally and figuratively – for the UK’s legal software vendors, who seem to be bearing the brunt of numerous and on-going problems in this area.  Although we are still making efforts to address these difficulties with the RTA portal team, we have thus far not been able to make much progress.

Perhaps some background would be useful here: at the moment, solicitors have the option of accessing the RTA Portal via their web browser or via their existing case management software, assuming that the latter has been upgraded.  Generally speaking, solicitors who have opted to use their existing case management software in this way tend to be those who handle a high volume of RTA and PI cases, whilst solicitors who have opted to use the portal via their web browser tend to handle a smaller amount of these claims.

Unfortunately, the result of this two-way split is that it’s unlikely that any small-scale users of the RTA Portal would be prepared to pay any additional licensing costs to the software vendor since a manual submission can still be made via the Portal’s own web site.  As a result, many of these firms feel that any (small) gains in efficiency are not enough to warrant paying any extra costs.

Of course, the exception here would be any firms that specialise in RTA and PI cases; for these firms, it’s normally worthwhile to upgrade their case management system in order to process a high volume of these cases most efficiently.  But what about the average High Street firm?  In some cases, PI cases like these could make up just a tiny percentage of their caseload, and so why would they want to pay a software vendor to update their case management system, deliver training on the new RTA Portal functionality, and then to provide on-going maintenance and management costs?

The short answer is:  they don’t.  And yet the software vendors still need to spend a significant amount of time and money on creating this solution for the handful of clients that need it – and for any new clients that feel like they should have it.   As such, any additional costs associated with access to the RTA portal will not be acceptable to claimant solicitors, even as the costs for software vendors continues to rise.

The Legal Software Suppliers Association is certainly no stranger to the rigours of software development, and in fact has been helping law firms to streamline systems, boost efficiency and reduce their overheads for years. As such, the Association has set up and actively contributes to a number of different working parties and forums, representing and lobbying on behalf of its members with organisations including HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the Legal Services Commission (LSC), the Land Registry and indeed the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as well.

Despite this pedigree, the team behind the RTA portal seems determined to develop this solution with virtually no input from the LSSA nor its individual members, up to and including the latest “consultation” meeting on this subject, held just last month.

In particular, a number of proposed clauses in the draft software vendor agreement that was presented by the RTA Portal team at this meeting were wholly unacceptable. For example, the draft contract stipulates that any software vendor who is not able to meet the RTA’s (wholly unrealistic) deadlines for future software updates risks being in breach of contract, even if the RTA portal team has given members insufficient notice for these changes.

Clearly, this is wildly unfair. Although its members can sometimes implement “emergency” changes to software very quickly, the LSSA’s typical concept-design-build-test-deploy cycle is three months – a fact that is already well known and documented by the Legal Services Commission (LSC), which now falls under the MoJ.

The RTA Portal team also expects to see detailed plans and schedules from the software vendors which outline how and when these software changes will be made – even though this information may be company confidential – and also expects software vendors to document and report on which of its clients are using the portal.

In addition, LSSA members were informed that their contract with the RTA Portal could be terminated at any time, and without any notice – even though many software vendors would still need to give their clients 12 months notice before withdrawing their support of any software related to the RTA portal.

At the same time, LSSA members were also told that they could be charged a fee to integrate their software with the RTA portal – under the guise of a payment for “support” from the Portal team – which was especially difficult to accept given the serious communications problems that the Association has had with the Portal team to date.

The question of insurance remains another sticking point, as the Portal will only accept limited liability for any data loss, reputational data or other problems related to the use of the Portal, whilst software vendors are expected to seek out additional (and expensive) liability insurance for this purpose – even though software vendors do not actually require any access or interaction with the live Portal at all, and are 100 per cent content to trial their products on the Portal’s test site exclusively.

For these and other reasons, the general view amongst the LSSA members who attended the recent RTA Portal consultation was that it would be “commercial suicide” to sign any contract with these clauses included, and indeed a quick straw poll revealed that no member present would be willing to sign the RTA portal contract in its current form.

It’s really a very sorry state of affairs.  Despite hosting its “consultation” on these issues last month, the RTA project team seem unwilling to work with the Association or any of its individual members on the majority of these issues.  As a result, the Portal team is effectively killing off any desire on the part of software vendors to develop a system that will help the greatest number of law firms to process RTA and PI claims most efficiently, and therefore help the greatest number of claimants.

And, that is perhaps the greatest irony of all; in our view, the team behind the RTA portal seems to be taking up a position that actively excludes participation in a system that has been designed to improve access to justice.