Bugs make magistrates IT system 'unfit for purpose'

Libra director says system to link UK justice agencies needs more work

The fourth attempt in 15 years to build a unified case management system for magistrates courts across England and Wales has run into delays because of software bugs and application speed problems.

The Libra system is a key component in helping the government to meet its election pledge of speeding up the criminal justice system. It is part of the Exchange project which is due to start going live in December, linking systems in justice agencies including police, the Crown Prosecution Service and magistrates courts.

But a letter from the Department for Constitutional Affairs to justices' chief executives, leaked to Computer Weekly, said the system was not fit for purpose. It highlighted software bugs and said that despite a tenfold improvement during development, parts of the application were running too slowly.

The contractual delivery point for the software is mid-September and the department has enacted contingency arrangements, according to the letter, dated 20 August and signed by Paul Atwell, director of the Libra project.

Atwell said the problems were identified in July. "The extent of these [software errors] is such that the application cannot yet be regarded as fit for purpose," he wrote. "We are confident that these errors are being properly addressed but continuing to rectify them to the necessary level will take time."

Atwell added that performance issues were limiting the speed of the application. "A tenfold improvement in performance has already been gained and reaching the right level of efficiency is considered solvable but again this will take time," he said.

A report by public spending watchdog the National Audit Office in January 2003 said that Libra was "essential" to government plans to bring together the administration of crown, county and magistrates courts in April 2005. But the roll-out of Libra's core software is not now expected to be completed until the end of 2005 or early 2006.

The first site is due to deploy the system by December this year, but the software must be made fit for purpose by then. Most courts will have to put back their plans to deploy by "about three months,"according to Atwell's letter.

Court staff have expressed concern to Computer Weekly that the project might be too big and complex to succeed. They said testing timetables might be compressed to recover time lost because of the problems. There is also concern that there will be little parallel running of old and new systems once the software has been accepted. But the department said software would be deployed only after it has been fully tested, proven in a court and accepted by user panels.

In his letter Atwell said, "It is inevitable that this change in the timetable for Libra will raise scepticism about the prospect of delivery to magistrates court committees [which manage courts] and I would agree it is disappointing. I want to assure you that the scale of this issue is far from those experienced in previous incarnations of the project."

Atwell went on to say, "We will deliver what you needÉ it will be fit for purpose." Given that there will be delays in migration, Atwell promised to "underwrite the cost of keeping project managers in magistrates court committees where needed".

Many courts have advanced plans to deploy Libra, having relied on technology that is between 12 and 20 years old.

In a statement the Department for Constitutional Affairs said the impact of the delays on the joining up of criminal justice systems was small. "On current estimates, a few local CJS [criminal justice system] areas are affected," it said.

The statement added, "We are not yet satisfied that the application is fit for purpose and that is the reason for the delay. We know what the issues are and teams are deployed to resolve them."

The challenge facing Libra

The greatest uncertainty facing Libra is whether the core software will work quickly and smoothly in courts, which vary in size and have different ways of working. The Department for Constitutional Affairs said the software can be adapted to suit each court, but the 2003 NAO report on Libra warned, "Standard IT systems need standardised business processes."

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