THE controversial £25m computerisation of the courts ran into its first difficulties last week when the first phase of the project was delayed by what the contractors described as a “minor blip”.

Any company installing such a large system is likely to encounter problems, but the “blip” will provide ammunition for critics of the scheme.

In September last year, IT giant EDS (Electronic Data Systems) became the first company to be awarded a contract by the Lord Chancellor's Department under a Private Finance Initiative.

The £25m deal handed over responsibility for computerising all the civil and crown courts in England and Wales by the end of 1997. This was the first time a private company had been given responsibility for managing court information and it will not be the last.

The LCD is currently assessing tenders for two other IT projects to be carried out under PFI – Aramis and Mass.

Aramis will computerise accounts for the Court Service and LCD and Mass (Magistrates' Courts Standard Specification) is designed to help the LCD monitor performance and plan strategy. Mass will standardise computing across magistrates' courts, including case management, the issue and collection of fines, and the production of court orders.

The LCD plans to have awarded both contracts by the end of the year and expects Aramis to begin implementation in 1997.

Lord Woolf, seen by many as the driving force behind the use of IT in the courts, has voiced misgivings about the use of PFI agreements. In his final report on reform of the civil justice system, Access to Justice, he highlighted “widespread concern” that control over strategy might be lost to a private sector supplier and that it might create a monopoly. He called for the creation of a new independent body to monitor and review IT strategy.

Richard Susskind, Woolf's adviser on IT for the report and a member of the Court of Appeal Review (Civil division) Team, says: “PFI can be used to develop IT in a way that would not be possible by the public purse. But if not rigorously managed, there are dangers.”

He adds: “The independent IT strategy body has not yet been set up and, to my knowledge, there is no specific time when it will be.”

But an LCD spokesman claims strategic control was not being handed over to the private sector, adding that the IT body would be a sub-committee of the Civil Justice Council, which itself would not be set up until later this year. “We cannot put every single IT development on hold until the body is set up,” he says.

So the LCD plans roll on and the department has now drawn up a shortlist of contractors for the two outstanding PFI projects. EDS has been shortlisted for both and is also carrying out a scope study to come up with ideas on how to integrate the existing system project, which, under the terms of its contract, only it can develop.

The Texan giant already holds contracts with the Inland Revenue, DVLC and the DSS. It was also responsible for computerising the Child Support Agency.

Not surprisingly, some commentators feel uncomfortable with EDS' prominent position in the world of PFI. The Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons recently expressed concern that EDS might be becoming the dominant supplier of IT services to the Government.

A spokesman from Labour's legal affairs office claims EDS' position within the legal market would be reviewed, if and when Labour was elected into Government.

But the LCD says it has no undue concern about the fact that EDS might secure all three of its PFI projects. A spokesman says: “We have no specific concerns about that. There's no real question of a monopoly. We are looking for the most cost-effective solution to the problem.”