The Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) has failed to allay trade union concerns over plans to privatise the department's computing and administrative functions and now faces the likelihood of industrial action.
The row is over the Government's Private Finance Initiative (PFI) requirement to tender out all big capital investment projects to the private sector.
The two civil service unions, the Civil and Public Servants Association (CPSA) and the National Union of Civil and Public Servants, expect a ballot for action in the coming weeks which could lead to a blackout of essential computer systems at the London head office.
Union leaders will request a meeting with Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay and Court Services Agency chief executive Michael Huebner, whom they will call on to drop the plans.
They will also write to members of the judiciary, including the Lord Chief Justice and Master of the Rolls, to explain their concerns. The unions will say that the LCD is legally bound to consult senior judges before embarking on any privatisation process, under Schedule 16 of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act.
Brian Sturtevant, CPSA national officer, said: "The general mood is extremely unhappy. Staff feel deceived over the way this has all been handled. They found out that these plans include administration and support functions, including what they regard as judicial functions, on the day that contractors are being invited to tender for their jobs, which is pretty devious."
The unions say sensitive areas of court administration should not be handled by private companies - such as court orders, collecting payments into court, listing and case progression, which includes issuing the enforcement process and warrants of execution.
The tendering companies are interested in handling a wide selection of such functions.
Union members sought assurances from senior LCD managers Peter White and Peter Handcock last week.
"We are not satisfied with their responses so we are asking them to drop the PFI plan," said Sturtevant.