back to article Her Majesty's £444m court IT system can't even add up fines

The Libra magistrates' courts case management system has contributed to the inability of HM Courts Service to produce basic financial information to support its accounts, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO). The courts service uses Libra, plus information produced by local police forces' IT systems, to …


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  1. Richard 12 Silver badge

    So, we are making use of the penalty clauses in the supply contract now?

    Oops, I forgot. This is a Government contract.

    How stupid of me to think that the project scope had been properly defined and the contract well-written.

    I wouldn't be surprised if the project scope didn't even consider audit functions. After all, what kind of crazy court system allows people to check up on it!

    1. Is it me?


      Oh, audit functions will have been considered, but they will not have been implemented because they were too expensive and not business critical, or that they slowed the system down so much as to make it unusable.

      I've worked on systems where the autdit functions were designed built and then not turned on. or included in the final build for performance and cost reasons. Needs too much storage; what test it, how much will that cost; and so on.

    2. BristolBachelor Gold badge

      Fail fail fail

      You should've spotted your own mistake, when you said "Government contract" and then followed it with "project scope had been properly defined and the contract well-written." without an interviening NOT...

      Government work means that everybody with a say hasa different idea about what they want, how and when, with requirements changing on a weekly basis.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Could do it for less than a million.

    Why oh why don't the government get little houses to write the prototypes? Prototype as a design document just works.

    1. Chris Thomas Alpha


      I often wondered the same thing, myself being probably in your position as well, I run a very small development company and when I look at these systems, I'm almost furious at the huge expense it seems to have created for something that didnt really work.

      Something I've always believed is that you should create smaller systems locally instead of a huge massive global system, all you need to do is define how the data is transported between systems, but internally, what they do as long as they are in compliance shouldn't be an issue.

      that way you don't end up spending 444 million pounds creating a huge unmaintanable monster which gets out of control and takes down the entire system surrounding it.

      Over time, a larger and larger amount of common code is created and therefore can be verified and shared.

      I'm sure you're thinking the same, it would help the community too, think about it, if IT contracts for a GP's office was awarded to a local company, that money stays in the community, big society right? or whatever you prefer to call it.

      All it needs is somebody with a clue, and perhaps a club, to help people understand how this is supposed to work and actually make it work and I think I have more confidence in you, even though I have no idea who you really are, than some huge mega-corp full of programmers who seem barely capable of wiping their arse and probably had three failed attempts, one including a macbook and a tube of toothpaste...

      1. Ben Holmes

        The problem is endemic to the Civil Government IT sector. Too many people in Civil Government have a say in the project scope, almost all of them want to stamp their mark on it, and to cap it all off the Project Managers on the industry side are (in general - I've met one or two good ones) a bunch of pandering yes men who've ironically been 'promoted' into positions where they can do the least amount of damage.

        And so the filthy, pointless, expensive cycle continues.

        And eventually you get an NHS IT system. Or a Eurofighter Typhoon. Except you don't. You get some half-arsed facsimile of an end product which has succeeded in nothing but emptying the coffers.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    £444 million?

    No wonder it doesn't work, do they not know about Chinese numerology?

    1. Michael Dunn

      Chinese Numerology

      You suggest they should have costed it at 888M?

      You can get a lost more beer for that!

  4. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Alternate procedure

    Download the data to a USB key

    Copy to a PC and do the totals in Excel

    Leave USB key on train

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So let me get this strait. The UK gov's financal office payed 444M for a computer system (computers are machines that do math pretty much exclusively last time I checked) to handle income, yet said system can't do something as basic as count how much came in?

    That must have taken a lot of incompetent idiots on all sides to fuck it up THAT bad...

    1. FredScummer

      That must have taken a lot of incompetent idiots on all sides

      Actuallly I'm not sure that's a true statement. My knowledge of government contracts is very limited, but the impression I have formed over a period of time is that these gaping "holes" in government contracts are deliberate, probably on both sides.

      On the supplier side it provides a future opportunity to grab some more money on a new contract. And on the government side one mustn't underestimate the jobsworth's who see their future being secure in overseeing future contractual negotiations which the government has to undertake.

      There's nothing simple about government contracts, beyond making sure that both sides have a future to look forward to.

      1. beerandbiscuits

        There's also the small matter that the people who are in power when the contract is negotiated often know damn well that they won't be around to take the blame when it all goes tits up. So they leave the project parameters wide enough that they can say a. it is a marvellous thing that will provide all the answers to the world's problems and b. 10 years later, it would have worked fine if the other party hadn't buggered it up.

        The truth is that what they care about when they commission these things is political advantage, and they don't give two hoots about whether it works or not.

  6. Anonymous Coward

    Wow That's Waste !

    I am sure a team of five competent Postgres+Perl hackers would have delivered this for hardware cost of 1 million and software cost of another million in a timespan of 12 months. In a working condition complete with unit tests.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      For about 4 users with no hosting and no 24/7 support perhaps.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        @AC, 11:22 - No For 20000 Users

        I just read Facebook is running their service on 10000 servers. So that is in the order of 40000 users per server. Of course, there won't ever be 40000 concurrent users per server, as people do not use FB all at once.

        Nevertheless, a properly designed server cluster of (say) 20 Linux servers would certainly have performed what the government needed. Of course, that's only true if the requirements aren't completely messed and don't change while development is done. 20 high-end x86 servers is something like 20*5000 Euros == 100k Euros. There is no doubt we are talking about outrageous waste here.

    2. Dan 10

      Suspect you might be barking up the wrong tree slightly

      Recruiting a handful of competent coders is unlikely to be the problem - it will be the political culture, insufficiently-stated requirements and a refusal on the part of the vendor's senior leadership to push back on ever-changing requirements.

      There is a reason that government projects fail, and it's unlikely to be due to a lack of decent techies. Ever think that maybe the common factor in these failing projects is the *customer* more than it is the provider? I'm not for a minute suggesting the likes of Capita/EDS/Fujitsu are brilliant solution providers - merely that there are many different ones - so they aren't really the common denominator.

      No, I don't work in the public sector (or for an outsourcer working on public sector projects).

  7. Fibbles

    Title contains too many expletives to be published.

    I'm not a huge fan of bean-counters and lawyers but the government really needs to start using some when negotiating these large IT contracts. Somebody with some clue about IT would also be helpful.

    Actually... who the hell is negotiating these things at the moment? The 16 year old tea-boy who was only supposed to be there for work experience?

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "but the government really needs to start using some when negotiating these large IT contracts."

      In govt IT terms £44m/PA is *not* a big contract.

      Which given its *relatively* well defined boundary means there is even *less* reason for this f***up to occur.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What staggers me...

    ... Is the HMCE bloke simply says "I have therefore disclaimed my audit opinion on its trust statement accounts". I wish I could be that relaxed about the failure of their own system. I paid my tax and filed the return a month early, and got the reciept. Since then they have hounded me night and day, and fined me twice for not paying, nor filing. Each "appeal" has resulted in me being told I havent filed an appeal, and each month, they add another £99 onto the fine. I expect to have bailiffs turning up on the door eventually, to which I shall give him a lever-arch file full of unanswered half-correspondance, and hundreds of telephone call reference numbers.

    1. John Riddoch

      Read the article properly: "Amyas Morse, head of the NAO" said that, NAO is National Audit Office. In short, the auditor has not been provided with information he has requested (due to the system being procured under a govt IT contract and is therefore practically guaranteed to be a failure) so he can't verify some of the figures. I'm guessing "disclaimed" means "I can't verify the figures, but don't believe them to be incorrect" in Auditor speak.

    2. mark 63 Silver badge

      Lets hope it dosent come to that - The leather jacketed gorilla at your door might fail to see the subtlties of the case.

      Maybe you could suue them for harassment + time wasting + possible physical injury if it gets to the gorilla stage.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Works well

      This line works well, used it to see off illegal wheel clampers :)

      I will not be providing any payment and your continued pursuit of this matter will constitute an offence under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Heresy ... and at Christmas Bonus time too

    Would a small army of clerks and accountants (say about 100 ) cost 400+ million to do this sort of thing? Accounting by Computer is all very well but let's face it - in the majority of cases it's a dismal failure.

    Posting anon (a QuickBooks user).

  10. MGJ

    The original cost of the Libra contract included wiring, PC supply, training, project management etc, as well as the delivery of the core application, to hundreds of courts and thousands of users. But its much easier to be lazy and imply that all sides were incompetent 13 plus years ago.

    1. gerryg

      Sometimes it's better to say nothing and look deep...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Bargain then

      Only 40 million quid a year for thousands of users to have a system complete with hardware, software and training that doesn't work as intended but provided by competent suppliers and buyers. Can't see a fail there at all.

    3. Tom 7

      wiring, PC supply, training, project management included

      Always have alternate possible failures to pass the buck to.

      'The software/hardware is holding up the hardware/software'

      Even 15 years ago this should have rung bells.

      You may be right - perhaps all sides weren't incompetent but I guess the ones that weren't were corrupt in their intentions to squeeze as much out of it as possible and knew they'd be able to make more the worse the other sides did.

      I don't get the impression anyone wanted to provide the service they were tendering for,

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    From Experience

    One Good Programmer > (ShitLoad Of Programmers) + (Shitload of consultants) + (Shitload of Project Managers)

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

    "..body of people largely ungoverned.."

    The Good:

    The established "translucency" rules allow the citizens when government fsxks up.

    The Bad:

    There is almost no oversight (and little insight) on how the decisions leading to these ends are made.

    The Ugly:

    Things will continue to get FUBAR'ed because bureucrats can and do weasel out of being held accountable. Some will even get knighted.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Libra - The multi-million pound failed abacus

    Libra was delivered 8 years late and HUNDREDS of millions of pounds over budget. Yet it appears that it cannot even do basic addition.

    At a time when huge cuts to the legal aid budget are crippling the criminal and family court system we are told yet another huge government computer contract is a farce which cost us £444 million!

    Whose head will be on the block? Absolutely no-one, as per usual, either from government or from the industry. People are fed up with government failures to manage computer projects with the same rigour as any ordinary contract. They are also fed up seeing consultants, and the firms they recommend, waltz away with hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers money for rubbish systems.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not ICL or FJ this time though...

    This one isn't a case of Fujitsu to blame... the author could have checked some basics out first.

    ICL won the contract, as stated. Rebranded as Fujitsu Services, the government gave up on them trying to implement the Libra business systems in 2002 but FJ did deliver provide desktop and network services.

    Legacy supplier STL ultimately took over the business system delivery ( and that's the system being talked of here. I seem to remember Accenture were going to host it but can't remember where that part ended up.

    The challenge with this project was imposing a single IT system, and therefore set of business processes, on an independent group of local court authorities who each had a veto and a self-interest in the status quo. Aligned to a central government department who invented business rules on a daily basis this was doomed to failure from the start.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Now Logica / STL

      Logica are now responsible for delivering the Libra service with STL still working as 3rd party supplier.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fun times

    I can see exactly how this happens in the public sector. Usually the people at the top of the organisation do not have the faintest idea of what they are signing. They get their current IT to draw up a big list of mission critical stuff, put out a tender and pick the cheapest big name.The first thing the new consultants do is muzzle the existing IT by either removing or reemploying the IT function. Who'll criticize their new boss especially one who is already making cuts galore? They'll then start treating every existing app as a legacy one and refuse to actually put in any development or replacements unless some cash is ponied up. The worst thing is that they now control all IT tendering so you cant just ask an outside company to do anything that you know will be cheaper and better. Then lock in and inertia guarantees you cannot get rid of them unless the sky literally falls in.

  16. Herby

    It goes on and on...

    To err is human, to REALLY foul things up requires a computer.

    Of course even more damage can be done with overpriced consultants and their government minions, but I'll leave that for another day.

  17. Tchou

    Thank god

    iam a French tax-payer!

    Ho wait...

  18. alien anthropologist

    Lemme guess...

    Libra is written in Java by a bunch of Javaheads, followers of The Faith of Java.. that (as usual) have not a fricken clue about relational databases and data modeling - and did not design the system to add up metrics across entities...?

    I've lost count how many Java fails like this I've seen. But then reasoning and logic are lost causes when dealing with Javaheads - as one would expect dealing with religious zealots.

  19. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Why, oh, why.. people insist on massive large single IT contracts ? These things fail because it's impossible to accurately define every single aspect of the system. As the system is slowly built, people (users, developers, testers) discover holes in the spec/design, so it has to be revised - and hence the supplier gets to screw the customer for more money.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So let me get this correct.....

    ..a "company" cannot provide acurate accounts of monies received and spent?

    Wouldn't this be illegal if it were a private business? Something to with HMRC getting a little pissed off if you couldn't provide acurate account information?

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    A lot of court functions are Judge lead as well, and if they don't like what they see, noone could force them to use it. Libra is I understand not the only IT system across government caught out by the legal professions refusing to acknowledge its existance and insisting on doing things the old way. One example I can think of has resulted in three different systems being used to do the same thing, because the lawyers involved liked what they liked, to manage their cases. Noone had the authority to force them to use the new system.

    Libra's failure really is down to the Legal profession and not the IT contractors.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Fruity excess....

    I have it on the QT that there is a plan for the MOJ to issue Fruity Fondleslabs to all of it's wide. Then the case files can be accessed via the fondleslab.

    And if they are needed say the other end of the country pronto they will be sent as Email attachments.

    So no problems there then. Lots of unencrypted incredibly sensitive stuff emailed to all and sundry....what could possibly go wrong with that?

    I love it when a slow motion car crash is about to unfold before your very eyes.....

  23. DrXym

    I'd love to know

    Why all these government contracts end up costing so much, taking so long and falling short in terms of performance, even to the point of failing to do what they were designed for.

    Clearly a lot of suppliers are taking the government for a ride. They're making wholly unreasonable promises for delivery (thanks to commission based salesmen), burning through the budget with a revolving door of (sub)contractors, overcharging for kit and delivering an inferior product. It's about time government started getting tougher. Hold projects to their delivery dates, put a cap on contract rates, impose fines for late delivery and withhold sufficient payment to act as incentive to deliver something which meets acceptance criteria. And blackball any contractor who attempts to take the country for a ride so they cannot repeat the same trick somewhere else.

  24. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    And it was a PFI as well.

    The Computer Weekly article is highly illuminating

    All the old classic govt systems BS turns up in this one.

    Supplier cost estimates on "unrealistic" basis.

    Supplier requires *repeated* renegotiation cycles built into the contract with them done on it's timescale.

    "Risk transferred to the supplier" *except* system cannot be allowed to fail and *no* backup supplier.

    Installation across *hundreds* of sites (many of them quite old buildings) not expected to be a problem

    Business processes (yes it's a bit pompous but that's what they are) not analyzed or converged *before* national system is rolled out so *common* tasks the system is meant to be supporting are in fact *not* common.

    Two earlier (but *much* cheaper) attempts to computerize bits of the UK law courts system had already failed, so a fairly rich crop of lessons to be learned *already*.

    Congratulations Lord Chancellors office, you were Fujitsu's bitch.

  25. SJRulez

    The cost of Libra was £444m, plus services charges of some £10m a year. The system is now run by Fujitsu, but the original supplier, ICL, estimated its cost at £146m over 11 years when bidding for the project in May 1998.

    The obviously forgot to add the 'Government Budget Change Percentage' which stipulates that if you allow 10% per year for changes to tax, fuel, vat etc over the course of the project we'll do everything we can to make sure its 50 times that to make it look like you screwed up even worse.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This whole system is broken

    Its broken beyond repair

    I will post this example anonymously to save the embarrassment of the person concerned, but I am happy to stand behind every word. Someone I know well had two convictions in 2011. He pleaded guilty to both at the earliest time and ended up having to pay court fees and fines. In both cases the Magistrate or Judge gave him 14 days to pay.

    The courts themselves issue no paperwork. So having been found guilty and given his sentence NOTHING handed to the now guilty person regarding exactly what the sentence means, how much he has to pay and when. All he knows is that its something like £200 fine, £170 pound costs (*plus everything else). He is in a dock, in a high stress environment, and cannot take any notes. He is just expected to remember all of this.

    So, you ask the CPS bod, who says its not their problem. Court usher doesn't want to know but does say you will get something in the post. But is is stressed that it is YOUR responsibility to pay otherwise you are in contempt of court.

    So you wait for a letter. It doesn't arrive. a day before the dead line expires you call the court and are told to call the central justice system number. They can't do a thing because they need the unique number that is on the top of the letter you haven't yet received.At this point panic starts. They tell you to wait for the letter.

    Two days later you get a letter to say that you have not paid by the allotted time, you are in breech of your sentence, and that a warrant your your arrest will be issued automatically. Now your really bricking it.

    Two days latter, the letter with the court fine arrives. Its wrong, but what the heck, at least you have a number. You examine this letter carefully and see that although it is dated on the day of your case, the postal frank says it was posted yesterday, ie after the deadline for payment expired. Nevertheless, you call the central number, get out your card and pay your dues to society. You explain that the fine was larger than they have in the system, but the system will not accept the correct amount, only the amount on the letter.

    Some weeks later, you get another letter saying that due to an error in the system, you get another threatening letter to say you underpaid your fine and that your due before a magistrate again.

    (At this point, you loose the will to live and wish they had just hanged you instead, just for motoring offence).

    Honest, I am not making this up. It didn't just happen once, it happened twice. Yes, he was a naughty boy, he has learnt his lesson, but that's not the moral of the story.

    This whole system is BROKEN.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Libra is a disaster

    My organisation regularly works in several magistrates courts. BITD they used to fax us a copy of each day's case list so we knew where to send our documents & minions. Now they say we have to look each case up in Libra, and print off the details one-by-one. So we now spend several hours laboriously extracting reams of confidential data we don't need, just to get a simple case list.

    To add insult to injury, the Libra service is hugely unreliable and fails on an everyday basis. Most of the senior developers are long-gone, and the vestigial support team say they can only help with problems encountered when using IE6. Let me repeat that - the only supported browser is IE6. If you choose to use a modern or safe browser instead, the stock answer is "we don't support that, try again with IE6".

  28. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    "the only supported browser is IE6"

    This just keeps getting better and better.

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