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ESSENTIAL computer systems in the Lord Chancellor's Department, Courts Service and the County Courts could be switched off by staff this week in protest over a £60 million IT privatisation plan.
Tendering by the LCD is already under way, with four large computer service companies shortlisted, including General Motors subsidiary EDS, once owned by US ex-presidential hopeful Ross Perot.
Staff are uneasy about the privatisation, required under "private finance initiative" government rules. They are also concerned by plans to slash the number of probate sub-registries around the country by half. The moves are to be unveiled on 16 October and due to trigger a national campaign of union protest.
Paul Boateng MP, Labour legal spokesman, condemned the "creeping privatisation" of the courts system as "the stuff of Disneyland". He added: "The Government must call a halt to this folly now, if standards and staff morale are not to be finally decimated."
Staff unions fear privatisation will threaten jobs, and may also infringe on judicial aspects of case administration.
The judiciary, which would have to approve any privatisation, appears not to have been fully consulted on the plans yet, say unions.
Brian Sturtevant, the Civil and Public Servants Association (CPSA) national officer, said: "The CPSA is extremely concerned. This is about more than just private business providing a new computer system. It will also be providing the administration and the back-up."
Both the CPSA and National Union of Civil and Public Servants (NUCPS) will meet LCD management this Friday to seek assurances.
Sturtevant said: "If we can't get a satisfactory deal to protect members' interests, we will ballot for industrial action which means the computer systems will be switched off. The lot, basically. There will be absolute chaos."
Both unions say the LCD's statement of requirement - the tender document - shows the work being tendered will include sensitive functions such as the issuing of summonses and appeals against them. These functions must be dealt with by officers of the court and should not go to a private company, they say.
The tender involves developing and running the LOCCS (Local County Court System) computers due to be installed in all County Courts. Included in the privatisation are the Northampton-based summons production centre and County Court bulk centre.
On the separate issue of plans to shut 13 of the 18 probate sub-registries, NUCPS officer Azim Hajee said the closures would create extra cost for the public.
"We cannot understand how this squares with the Government's alleged wish to promote access to justice and customer service," he said. The NUCPS is calling for the LCD to publish its plans immediately in order to maximise consultation.