Three attempts since 1989 have failed - but a team of 100 people are now leading a fourth effort to deliver a successful national case management system for magistrates courts.
This fourth project has hit a setback, according to leaked documents written by Paul Atwell, director of Libra. Atwell told Computer Weekly last week that he was disappointed by the latest problems, but he is confident that the new system will be workable.
"It is not rocket science but we have to get to get it right and we are working hard on that. It is a bit disappointing that we have not been a little sharper on getting it delivered but we recognise the issues, we know what we need to do and we are attacking that now," he said.
Staff in magistrates' courts have expressed concern that the project is too big and complicated to be delivered successfully. This is compounded, they say, by the project's focus on IT rather than trying first to simplify and unify the diverse business processes in about 380 magistrates' courts.
The software from STL Technologies is designed to adapt to the different ways of working in courts. When Atwell was asked if this flexibility would make the software horrendously complex, he replied, "Not necessarily. The complexity is mainly around the business implementation of it."
To reduce risks of failure, the software will be split into six releases and its scope has been reduced.
When Atwell joined the project in March 2003, he found a team of fewer than 30 people managing the project. Now he has a team of about 100.
"We have a whole different structure and a lot more rigour in the organisation. My assistant directors are civil servants now and there are no contractors with immediate line management responsibility in my organisation. There were a lot before."
Atwell's team identified bugs in the code and weaknesses in the performance of the system two-and-a-half months before the contractual delivery date of the software in mid September.
This early discovery has given him added confidence in the team's ability to remain on top of the problems. And consultancy Accenture is supporting the plans as systems integrator. The supplier was given a contract in 2003 to roll out STL's software into magistrates courts.
"I have a good system integrator that agrees to the achievability of [the project] and I am pretty optimistic we have not missed too many tricks," Atwell said.
Staff in court offices around the country have spent about a year preparing to go live. Of the 42 Magistrates' Court Committees that manage courts, 39 have advanced plans to switch to STL's national system. "There is a lot of investment and confidence that it will be delivered," said Atwell.
Some staff are concerned that the time allowed for testing and roll-out will be reduced to recover time which was lost when the software was found in July 2004 to be unfit for purpose. There is also concern that when the new system is introduced there will not be a period of parallel running with the old.
To this Atwell said the system will be piloted at a small court, probably in South West England, where it will have to pass integration and user acceptance tests before being rolled out across England and Wales.
It also has to pass an independent Gateway review, conducted by the Office of Government Commerce. The review assesses whether the new system is ready to go live.
"We should not be putting something that is unworkable operationally into any site," Atwell said. Once the system is accepted, it will be rolled out to courts and though there will be no parallel running, he said, courts will be able to fall back on existing systems in an emergency.
Atwell's confidence has been boosted by the results of the user trials. "I have had users in front of the user acceptance test environment with smiles on their faces, lavishing praise on the system."
When asked if he is absolutely confident that the uncertainties will not stop Libra going live as planned Atwell replied, "There is a concern about that. If I said there was not a concern you would laugh at me."
But he denied his team was being over-optimistic. "Our planning is second to none. We are on top of what we are doing. We can handle the way things are progressing."
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What is the Libra project?
The Libra project provides web-enabled case management software to electronically manage the complex judicial process for about 380 magistrates' courts in England and Wales.
In these areas, magistrates' courts consider 95% of the criminal cases prosecuted. Libra is designed to make it easier to:
- Schedule court hearings
- Process the results of cases
- Handle all case-related documentation
- Manage fines accounts and fees
- Track enforcement action.
Also, through a series of interfaces, Libra is due to link the courts to the other main criminal justice agencies, including the Police, Crown Prosecution Service and Probation Service, enabling case-related information to be shared electronically.