Court computers in countdown to chaos

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A special programme is being written into a new government computer system to prevent thousands of non-existent criminal court cases being called for trial all over the country on the last day of the 20th century.

The Lord Chancellor's department is implementing the scheme to prevent legal chaos caused because ageing court computers cannot speak Latin or understand the concept of eternity.

The problem surrounds the use of the centuries-old legal term "sine die" in the 500 magistrates courts in England and Wales when cases are, in effect, adjourned forever.

The phrase, which means ''without date'', is used in cases where a defendant has not been acquitted, but where the court believes the charge is too minor to be dealt with or the defendant cannot be traced. Its use is particularly common for minor motoring offences.

When they first started using computers nearly 25 years ago, magistrates' clerks discovered that their systems could not understand the phrase and needed to adjourn the cases to an actual date.

Because the early computers could not recognise dates after 2000, clerks in many areas adopted the practice of adjourning "sine die" cases until the last date at their disposal - 31 December 1999.

This means that on 30 December 1999 the courts' administrative systems are in danger of being overwhelmed as computers suddenly recognise that several years' worth of phantom cases are due for hearing the following day.

The size of the problem is unknown because of the courts' huge annual workload of two million cases and because some clerks may have discovered a different way of dealing with it.

Unconfirmed estimates suggest, however, that some inner-city courts may each have as many as 25,000 on file.

It is exacerbated because there are at least five totally different computer systems within the courts network.

"When the first systems were introduced 25 years ago, the last day of 1999 was still a long way off and it did not matter if these cases were adjourned until that date," one of the computer experts trying to solve the problem said. "It is only just over four years away and we have got to do something about it. Fortunately, computer software has advanced and the courts will not have to record false dates under the new system."

The new programme is part of the software for the Magistrates Courts Standard system which is costing about pounds 60m.