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By Hugh Logue, Newswatch Editor
The Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly has announced that 93 magistrates' courts and 49 county courts in England and Wales are to be closed.
The closures are expected to deliver an estimated £41.5m of savings, alongside a possible £38.5m from the sale of assets. Savings will also be made from not having to maintain the buildings and, according to the government, there will be efficiency savings for other justice agencies by focusing their attendance at a single location within a community.
In addition, plans to build a new magistrates' court in Liverpool have been scrapped as the project has been deemed unaffordable in the current financial climate.
Mr Djanogly also announced that £22m of capital will be reinvested to improve and modernise the courts to which work will transfer as a result of the closures. Within this are three large projects in London, at Camberwell Green Magistrates' Court, in Staffordshire at Newcastle-under-Lyme Magistrates' Court, and in Wales at Prestatyn Magistrates' Court.
The announcement follows a public consultation on proposals to close 103 magistrates' courts and 54 county courts in England and Wales. In 2009/10, 32 of the magistrates' courts consulted on sat for less than a third of their total available time and 55 sat for less than half of the time, according to government figures.
Mr Djanogly claims that many of the 530 courts currently operated by Her Majesty's Courts Service do not meet the needs of modern communities. He argues that their number and location do not reflect recent changes in population, workload or transport and communication links over the many years since they were originally opened.
"Access to justice is not just about access to buildings. It's about the type of justice delivered, decent facilities for victims and witnesses and efficient use of the system," Mr Djanogly said.
"Our court estate has simply not kept pace with the changing nature of our society or with the demands modern society places on our justice system. An estate of over 500 court buildings is not now necessary or sustainable, nor is it a reasonable expense for the taxpayer.
"We are closing the worst courts in the estate - so we can concentrate our limited resources on the best ones. We are investing in the court estate with new buildings and with refurbishment of facilities.
"We have listened to the significant points made by respondents to the consultation. As a result we have decided not to close 15 courts which were included in the consultation."
The Magistrates' Association said it was surprised so many courts are to be closed. John Thornhill, Chairman of the Magistrates' Association said: "We expressed grave disappointment that the number of magistrates' courts to be closed is as high as 93 with only 10 being reprieved. We support those court closures which have been accepted by magistrates believing that for their area, rationalisation is the best way forward and that access to justice will not present a problem for court users. In other areas however, magistrates have expressed grave concern about the impact of court closures.
"For those areas this is a shattering blow to community summary justice and contrary to the principles of the Big Society as understood by the Magistrates' Association. We remain concerned about the consultation process and the quality of the information provided to the consultees. We are not satisfied that in every case the additional information that we provided has been properly taken into account."
Download a full list of the courts to be closed below.
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