The High Court yesterday ordered the computer company IBM to shut down the only computerised fingertip recognition system covering England and Wales, when it instructed the company to hand the system's computer disks over to a consortium of police forces.
The forces set up the first English and Welsh computerised fingerprint recognition service in 1992 using a computer system supplied by IBM, but late last month they cancelled the firm's contract and demanded the return of the computer disks containing the fingerprint information.
The forces, led by Hampshire police, claim IBM did not deliver a satisfactory service, and are suing the computer giant for millions of pounds.
IBM refused to hand over the disks, arguing that it had a moral obligation to keep an interim fingerprint system running while the consortium arranged for a replacement system.
Shortly after the contract was terminated on 24 March, IBM wrote to forces inviting them to continue to use the system. The company has continued to run the system since then, although no force has used it since the contract was terminated.
IBM argued in court that a replacement system will take between six weeks and six months to set up, and that during that time the 37 forces would be deprived of computerised fingerprint matching. The company offered to keep the system running and to hand over a copy of the data used for emergency backup, but the forces demanded the return of all the disks.
The judge, Mr Justice Lightfoot, said: "The consortium may or may not be foolish in rejecting IBM's offer, but that is a matter for them. It would not be right for me to require the consortium to accept IBM's offer, when the consortium has lost all confidence in them [IBM]."
A police spokesman said the consortium was pleased to win the case, but declined to comment further. "We do not want to crow about this," he said.
IBM had no comment on the judgment last night.