Courts £447m IT project is 16 years late – now heading for success?

Officials at HM Courts Service say they have turned around a stalled and failing £447m IT project for a national case management system for magistrates’ courts – a scheme that is 16 years late and costs nearly three times more than expected.

The “Libra” computer system is needed to speed up the time taken to deal with offenders, in part by supporting standard ways of working in courts. Court staff have in the past used different systems and ways of handling cases.

It will also allow better links between court and police systems. And a successful roll-out is needed to meet the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry into the Soham murders. The Bichard inquiry was set up to investigate how Ian Huntley got a job as a school caretaker despite a string of sex allegations against him.

HMCS change managers say that the Libra project was “stalled” and “failing” before they took it over. Now they say they are making changes in ways of working in courts and are “not just delivering an IT system”, since they took direct control of the project in January 2007.

Officials have told Computer Weekly that independent “gateway” reviews of the Libra project have progressed from a red light in 2006 to amber last March [Gateway 4 – readiness for service] and last month to green [Gateway 4a]. Libra is now in 83 courts and is due to be rolled out to all 370 or so magistrates’ courts by the end of this year.

But the cost has risen by nearly three times – from £146m in 1998 to a projected £447m by the end of March 2008.

Costs are expected to rise further as links are developed between Libra and the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the probation service, prisons, and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

Since 1992 civil servants and a range of suppliers and have tried unsuccessfully to replace court IT systems with single national system to help staff manage cases that come before magistrates.

The project passed between government departments, including the Home Office, Lord Chancellor’s Department and the Department for Constitutional Affairs at a higher level.

Karen Wheeler, change programme director at HMCS, has told her board of the state of the Libra project in April 2006. She said it was on hold pending software fixes and there were “significant applications and supplier issues” – and no plans to take forward new processes and business change.

A spokesman for HMCS said the green light at a gateway review last month “does not diminish the challenges and risks the project still faces but recognised these were being managed and an increased confidence the project will deliver successfully”.

He said that before January 2007 the project was “predominantly run by the IT Department”. He added:

“From the inception of HMCS a senior HMCS Senior Responsible Owner has been in place. As the project moved into rollout we made sure that the deployment elements such as training and business change were under the direct control of the HMCS Change Programme and demonstrably business owned. The rollout of all elements is now under the co-ordination of the HMCS Change Programme.”

How HMCS says it rescued a failing project – this is covered as a separate blog entry.


In parts of the public sector risks to the success of large IT projects are treated much like weeds to be managed by routine maintenance.

Risks are listed on a register with suggestions for mitigating them. The project may be infeasible but that’s not seriously considered, in part because there’s a risk register.

On the register – often an Excel spreadsheet – problems are euphemistically termed “issues” and attempts are made to manage each risk singly, with the result that nothing on its own looks too threatening. There is often no overview, and even if there were it would probably take a political decision to make use of the information. Project staff are unlikely to be in a position to order a major review or halt a project.

But managers at HM Courts Service are being realistic and pragmatic about the risks. They realise that changing – standardizing – working practices is as important as new IT. If you give priority to new IT and don’t change the way people work you may end up with technology that’s like a second-rate coffee machine in a large office: it’ll be used but employees will go elsewhere when tea or coffee is important to them, perhaps to a specialist.

The NHS’s National Programme for IT is an example. In some cases there have been useful deliveries of technology. In other cases there have been deliveries of mass-produced coffee machines; and to prove their success ministers have quoted unverifiable statistics on their widespread use. But mere use is not success. It’s profitable use that counts.

Over the 16-year life of Libra there have been so many failures that failure is expected. It’s a project that could plod on indefinitely and without purpose, because no minister wants the media coverage from cancelling it, or it could begin to work day to day in the courts. And it’s beginning to work – though how usefully we don’t know yet.

It’s interesting to note how it’s possible to give a risky project the radical treatment it needs once it has been written off, generally and politically, as a failure.


Libra project – lessons learned from its turn-around

Faster more effective justice? – New Statesman article

Bichard inquiry recommendations

National Audit Office report – 2003 – on Libra project

Public Accounts Committee report on Libra

Libra – part of the government’s GSI network

Richard Bacon MP comments on the costs of Libra

HM Courts Service turns around troubled Libra system

Libra – one of the worst PFI deals the Public Accounts Committee has ever seen – Edward Leigh, chairman of the committee

Libra – project description

Libra costs rise to almost £400m

Court staff hit by IT fiasco – 2001 Guardian article