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NAO calls for better crown court IT

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The National Audit Office has called for improvements to two crucial crown court computer systems

In a review of the administration of crown courts, published on 6 March 2009, the NAO says the 20 year-old Crest case management system is no longer supported by its manufacturer and is subsequently vulnerable. In addition, the Xhibit system for real time information on the progress of trials is unreliable.

Crest, a non-Windows database system, was developed and introduced between 1989-92. Despite its old infrastructure and vulnerability it is still being used by about 2,500 staff, and it does not allow crown courts to automatically receive data on new cases. The transfer of cases from magistrates courts to crown courts involves photocopying, faxing and posting documents.

According to the report, crown courts spend about nine minutes per case rekeying data from magistrates' files, the total cost of which is estimated at over £300,000 a year.

Last year HM Court Service looked at the scope for creating an electronic link between Crest and the magistrates' courts case management system, but decided the project was not a priority. IT supplier Logica estimated the costs of developing the interface would be high at £600,000. In addition the service considered that the benefits would be limited until Crest is centralised.

The NAO says the introduction of Xhibit in 2006 transformed court procedure by enabling staff to keep a real time record of activities and relay the outcome of trials electronically. But almost all the court staff interviewed had concerns about its reliability and speed.

"A particular concern was that the system sometimes ran too slowly or crashed, especially on Mondays and Fridays when the courts were processing a significantly higher number of cases," says the report. Although an improvement programme is under way, the NAO says it is too early to assess how successful this has been.

Responsibilities for IT in crown courts are split between the Ministry of Justice, technology suppliers and the HM Courts Service, which has responsibility for identifying and funding requests for change and identifying long term requirements.

Tim Burr, head of the NAO, said: "HM Courts Service faces a tight budgetary position and needs to get the most from its estate, staff and IT resources if crown court cases are to start promptly. The service needs to improve its allocation and development of staff, so that it has enough well trained people in each of its court locations, and tackle weaknesses in IT systems which currently bring operational risks and impair efficiency."

Victor Almeida, senior analyst at Kable, said: "Courts have always been technology laggards in the UK public sector. Until a few years ago, some did not even have computers, let alone electronic case management systems, while others relied on legacy systems, including Crest.

"The Criminal Justice IT Programme, which was completed last year and of which Xhibit was part, aimed to reverse this by providing courts with modern ICT solutions and infrastructure. It is very disappointing that it has not lived up to the expectations, leaving courts in one of the hindmost seats of the modernisation of the UK public sector."

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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