Niels Ladefoged

Thousands wrongly given criminal convictions after computer error

HM Courts and Tribunals Service report reveals that computer error wrongly assigned guilty pleas to more than 5,000 defendants

More than 5,000 people were wrongly recorded as having criminal convictions after a computer error meant guilty pleas were assigned to defendants in error.

In its latest annual report, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) revealed that between April 2020 and October 2020, guilty pleas were recorded in error on its Libra computer system, which is used in hundreds of magistrates’ courts across the county.

The errors occurred during a batch update of the system brought about because of the high number of magistrates’ court adjournments during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to HMCTS’s annual report, a total of 5,231 individuals and 55 companies were affected. The errors recording the guilty pleas resulted in inaccuracies on the Police National Computer, which meant criminal records could have appeared during checks.

Courts nationwide were affected, including Bromley, Bexley, Wimbledon, Croydon and Highbury in London.

“The error occurred in April 2020 after staff – not incorrectly – applied a bulk amendment facility to multiple cases being adjourned due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” said the HMCTS report. “The error occurred when staff failed to notice the change on a summary sheet produced for checking purposes. HMCTS informed ministers and after an investigation, all data errors were corrected.”

The problems have been rectifies and in the HMCTS annual report, Kevin Sadler, acting CEO and accounting officer said: “ I am satisfied that the significant control issue identified within this statement, relating to batch updates leading to `guilty’ pleas being recorded in error has been subject to rigorous review and has been managed through appropriate effective and proportionate mitigating activity.”

HMCTS said: “This was a temporary issue that was promptly resolved. No one received an incorrect verdict or sentence.”

An Information Commissioner’s Office investigation is under way and in a statement, it said: “People have the right to expect that organisations will handle their personal information responsibly.”

The original Libra contract was signed in 1998 with ICL, which was then acquired by Fujitsu. It was designed to replace outdated and incompatible equipment with standardised case management software across more than 300 magistrates’ courts. The overall goal was to provide office automation to the courts and a standard infrastructure.

In a 2003 report, the Public Accounts Committee said Libra was one of the worst public finance initiatives it had ever seen.

HMCTS would not name the current supplier of Libra, citing commercial sensitivity.

Read more about IT in the justice system

  • A Commons Select Committee report has voiced a number of concerns about the ongoing transformation efforts led by the Ministry of Justice and called for actions such as maintenance of non-digital services.
  • Significant IT issues at HM Courts and Tribunal Service have caused chaos across the UK’s courts as users have been unable to connect to the network and use IT systems that require access to it. 
  • An independent evaluation of HM Courts and Tribunals Service video hearings has found that judges and users have been adapting well to the service – and that cases conducted remotely are feasible.

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