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157 magistrates' and county courts to close in cutbacks

The Government yesterday announced plans to close 157 magistrates' and county courts across England and Wales. Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, said the move could save £15.3m a year and a one-off maintenance backlog bill of £21.5m.

Mr Clarke said he wanted to examine whether new technology could be used to help people resolve disputes in a more flexible, faster and effective way. Among magistrates courts earmarked for closure are Frome, Hemel Hempstead, Acton, Newbury and Rochdale. County courts threatened include Ashford, Cheltenham and Chepstow.

In a written statement, Mr Clarke said the Government will keep courts open in the "most strategically important locations". Consultation papers setting out proposals to close 103 magistrates' courts and 54 county courts, 40 per cent of the 530 currently open, have been published online.

Mr Clarke said: "When public finances are under pressure, it is vital to eliminate waste and reduce costs. At the same time we should also take the opportunity to think afresh about more modern court services. The arrangements we have are historical and need to be reassessed to ask if they meet the needs of society as it is today."

Jonathan Djanogly, the Courts Minister, said the closures could open the door to new ways of working which do not require witnesses to attend court.

He said the Government would take "all views into account" when considering which courts should close. Senior union officials have already vowed to fight the closures and the loss of any public sector jobs. Norina O'Hare of the Public and Commercial Services union, said the cuts would have a "direct impact" on the local delivery of justice.

Magistrates' courts handle more than 90 per cent of cases, from minor criminal matters to motoring offences, civil family cases and licensing. But the workload of Crown Courts is rising while that of magistrates' court has declined.