Courting computerisation

28 Jul 2003

A new computerised system for managing funds awarded to wards of court has totally transformed with the way the Courts Service operates. The new system not only standardises the way these monies are managed across the State but underpins the introduction of new levels of transparency and accountability.

In civil cases where the beneficiary of a judgement is vulnerable, such as a minor or someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the beneficiary may be made a ward of court to ensure that their best interests are looked after. In such cases the award would be administered by the Courts Service. Until now, the system for managing such funds had been dispersed with some 70 offices around the country looking after sums of money ranging from hundreds of euro to millions.

Judges making awards to the benefit of wards of court could designate the institution into which the funds should be deposited or could delegate that task to the County Registrar, in the case of the Circuit Court, or to the Chief Clerk in the case of the District Court. All of the information regarding these monies was maintained manually with hand-written ledgers.

“This was time-consuming and it was virtually impossible to get any meaningful management information out of the system because of the scale,” says Sean Quigley, director of finance for the Courts Service. “In fairness the manual systems worked very well. They had serious limitations when it came to the resources required to keep the system going and serious limitations in regard to management information. At the end of the day no-one was held up in terms of getting a cheque out. But the system has serious flaws, especially when you are talking about huge volumes of transactions.”

According to Quigley, the Accountants Office of the High Court alone processed 28,000 transactions ranging from issuing cheques, taking in investments and so on. That involved 100,000 manual transactions from filling in a form or writing a cheque to updating a ledger.

That has now changed with the introduction of a new computerised system developed by Irish company Mentec and based around the Agresso business management package. “We found that Mentec, without any prior knowledge of the Courts Service, was quickly able to demonstrate a comprehensive knowledge of our requirements and convert that into meaningful solutions that they would be able to provide,” says Quigley.

“Agresso is really a very strong business management sytem for people-centred organisations,” explains Kevin Haverty, managing director of Mentec International. “It has been developed by a Dutch company called Unit 4 Agresso and in 2001 was chosen as Best Packaged Application of the Year at the 2001 Microsoft Fusion partner event.”

The Courts Service had already chosen Agresso as the basis for the Courts Accounting System to handle fines, bail payments and so on. “It is worth saying from the outset that we found it extremely difficult to find a suitable system because of the unique aspects of some of our business,” says Quigley. However, after further discussions with Mentec and further reflection, the service decided that Agresso would be the system they needed. Mentec carried out the necessary customisation to ensure that the package met the Courts Service’s unique requirements.

Under the new system, awards made to minors and wards of court will be lodged with a Central Funds Office which will use the Agresso system to manage the fund. The system will be completely automated. “We expect that while the number of transactions will go up the number of interactions will go down. For instance once a requisition goes into the system and is approved, the cheque will go out and the ledgers will be updated. Staff will then be able to concentrate on key issues such as control, accountability and customer service.”

But automation and ease of use is not the only change brought about. The service has completely changed the way in which it handles the monies. For a start, it has tendered and awarded a contract for the management of the fund to ensure that the combined purchasing power can be maximised. And a new system of governance has been introduced. The Central Funds Office will report directly to Quigley as director of finance. “We will also have an investment committee to oversee everything and guide us on policy,” he says. “There will also be annual financial statements sent to beneficiaries and annual statements that we will produce like a set of accounts that will be audited by internal and external auditors. So like any business or pension fund we will be producing annual financial reports that will be totally transparent and totally open. This has never happened before with this money so it’s a huge step forward.”

But as far as Quigley is concerned this is not the end. “What we have done to date is put us at the starting line of where the courts should have been 15 years ago. All of these processes should have been computerised then. But now we are able to move onto the next stage much quicker. We would see payments going out electronically and lodged directly into beneficiaries’ or their solicitors’ bank accounts. Another area is the ability of local offices to access data electronically.

“Ultimately we could allow beneficiaries or their representatives to access their own accounts over the Web to see what the value of their funds are. These are the possibilities with the technology we are now putting in place.”

The most positive thing that emerged from the whole process, he says, was the willingness of judges and staff to embrace change. “With everyone on board it was just a question of finding the right solution and making it happen.”

By David Stewart

Pictured from left: Sean Quigley, director of finance and accountant of the Courts of Justice, The Courts Service; Dan Egan, applications director, Mentec International; The Hon. Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, Supreme Court Judge