Courts' IT systems in the dock

Magistrates' staff will for the next 18 months have to use two PCs where one would do, relying on 10-year-old models to access the casework system

The Lord Chancellor's Department hit another hurdle in its schedule for computerising the courts this week, when a consignment of new PCs ordered for magistrates' courts arrived, even though Libra -- the new electronic case management system -- is still in its early stages of development. The Department has decided to press ahead with installation of the computers, despite the fact that court staff will still have to rely on their 10-year-old PCs to access the casework system.

"We felt it was best not to hold up overall office automation by delaying the installation of the PCs," said a spokesman at the Lord Chancellor's Department, who confirmed that the new computers will only be useful for basic email and word processing applications. "The situation varies in different magistrate court committee areas... but some courts will need two computers for the next 15 to 18 months," he said, adding that it is not feasible to transfer the current case management system to the new PCs.

The Libra system will be locally managed by 43 magistrates' court committees, but will provide a unified system for cases to be shared between prosecution services and police authorities across the UK.

The Libra system is a private finance initiative, also benefiting from central government funding. But the Lord Chancellor's Department has received heavy criticism for its poor handling of the project's contract with Fujitsu subsidiary ICL. In 1998 ICL was contracted to build the networked computer system that would be compatible with the core casework application. The contract was originally worth £183m, but the company renegotiated the terms two years later to raise the value to £319m, and increase the length of the contract from eight to 12 years.

"The government and ICL are working closely together to achieve the earliest possible provision of the whole service," said the Lord Chancellor's Department spokesman. "There is a firm contractual commitment for the whole Libra service to be provided by ICL."

The contract is now scheduled for completion in 2013.

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