10 years and three failures take courts IT full circle

The Lord Chancellor's Department is on the verge of abandoning plans to introduce an all-new case working system for 11,000...

The Lord Chancellor's Department is on the verge of abandoning plans to introduce an all-new case working system for 11,000 end-users, designed to speed up criminal justice administration, in favour of enhancing software that dates from the 1980s.

The department is in talks with one of its existing IT legacy suppliers, STL Technologies, about enhancing its software, which is used by magistrates courts to track case files electronically.

It follows the collapse earlier this year of the £183m Libra Private Finance Initiative contract to replace three incompatible legacy applications in magistrates courts in England and Wales with a new, standard case management system from Fujitsu.

The department now plans interfaces to the police and other agencies in the criminal justice system, largely by enhancing STL's existing applications.

One of Labour's 1997 manifesto pledges was to provide a faster road to justice, but ministers have said repeatedly that reforms have been held back by old technology.

In 1998 the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, said the courts were plagued by computer systems that cannot talk to each other. "Information has to be typed into one computer, printed out and typed in again to another," he said.

Also in 1998 the then-criminal justice minister Geoff Hoon said, "In the magistrates courts there are three different core IT systems, none of which meets all their needs or the needs of the wider criminal justice system."

Ministers have said the reliance on old technology has contributed to delays that have led to defendants being held on remand for months and later being acquitted.

The Lord Chancellor's Department has abandoned three previous attempts to introduce a standard national system one of which was built around Libra's core software from Fujitsu. The latest move is designed to reduce the risks of repeating these failures.

It is also seen as the only practicable way the department can meet a promise to ministers to provide a standard national case-working system by the end of 2004. The police, courts, prisons, probation service and Crown Prosecution Service currently use faxes and the post to exchange case files on defendants.

Rosie Eagleson, general secretary of the Association of Magisterial Officers, said, "The department is going back to square one. If they had decided to enhance the legacy systems 10 years ago when they had this as an option, it would have saved millions of pounds on all the failed attempts at introducing entirely new core case management systems."

The legacy systems, STL's Equis, MCS from Unisys and LCIS from Fujitsu, date back to the 1970s or 1980s. An enhanced Equis is expected to form the new core case management software for 11,000 end-users.

Computer Weekly has learned that a contract with STL is expected to be signed shortly.

It has also emerged that the department has shortlisted Unisys, Logica and Accenture for a contract to integrate the STL software into courts' systems.

Meanwhile the cost of the Libra project has risen from £183m to nearly £240m, excluding two crucial further contracts.

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said, "We have agreed principles with STL, but are in the final stages of negotiating the programme to develop the existing product to add extra functionality necessary for a national system."

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