Courts face £25m computerisation

All crown and county courts in England and Wales should be computerised by the end of next year, under the terms of a contract recently awarded to a private sector company.

Electronic Data Systems (EDS) has won the tender to supply IT services to criminal and civil courts under a contract worth £20 to 25m. The Texas-based company already runs IT systems for the Inland Revenue and the DSS.

The contract is the first to be awarded under a Private Fin ance Initiative by the Lord Chancellor's Department and will last for seven years.

Under the Local County Court System (LOCCS) Agreement, EDS will get Caseman, a case management system developed by the Court Service, up and running throughout England and Wales by the end of next year. The system is currently used in six county courts.

Caseman allows court documents to be issued automatically and will replace the existing system of manual record-keeping. It will also process listings in the crown court. Future modules are likely to include family work and court support systems.

Responsibility for five existing IT systems, including systems that deal with crown court centres, parking fines in London and bankruptcy cases, will also be transferred to EDS.

EDS will be paid on a volume basis by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The scheme to give a private sector company access to judicial information met with resistance from court staff and resulted in a five-month industrial dispute by civil service unions. Under a settlement between the Court Service Agency and the unions, there will be no automatic transfer of staff to EDS.

Lord Woolf also expressed reservations about the PFI initiative in his final report on Access to Justice, saying there was widespread concern that control over strategy might be lost to the third party private sector supplier and that it might create a monopoly. He called for the creation of an independent body to monitor and report on the progress of the PFI.

Azin Hajee, LCD national officer in the Public Services Tax and Commerce Union, said: “We always thought a PFI was inappropriate for the LCD. It raises issues of confidentiality and about future strategic control of IT.

“We are aware that once a large private sector concern has a foot in the door of what is an enabling contract, it usually leaves the procurer at the mercy of that large private sector organisation.”

He added that the tender was “shrouded in a cloak of commercial confidentiality” and the tax payer will never know whether the contract will really offer value for money. “All the developmental risks have been born by the tax payer. This is simply an elaborate hire-purchase scheme which cascades costs onto future generations.”

But David Biondini, business manager of EDS, said all strategic decisions will remain with the Court Service.

“We are servants of the Court Service in terms of strategy and policy. We will have no involvement in judicial decision-making at any level.”