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The government today announced a comprehensive assessment of the legal aid system and are consulting on views on whether to close 103 magistrates' and 54 county courts.
The government's aim is to create a more efficient legal aid system and court service as set out in the government's coalition agreement. The government will be seeking practitioner's views on a proposed new approach in the autumn.
The proposed courts to be closed in England and Wales are purportedly underused and "inadequate", according to the government. If implemented, running cost savings of around £15.3m per year could be achieved along with a saving of £21.5m on maintenance costs that could be avoided. There will also be savings for other justice agencies by focusing their attendance at a single accessible location within a community.
In a written statement to Parliament, justice secretary Kenneth Clarke said the government's immediate priority is to reduce the financial deficit and encourage economic recovery.
"We have made it clear that the main burden of the deficit reduction will be borne by reduced public spending, achieved by financial discipline and the most efficient and effective delivery of public services. I am seeking to develop an approach to legal aid spending which balances these necessary financial constraints with the interests of justice and the wider public interest," Mr Clarke said.
"We will seek to develop an approach which is compatible with fair and necessary access to justice for those who need it most, the protection of the most vulnerable in our society, the efficient performance of the justice system, and our international legal obligations."
The Bar Council welcomed the announcement on a review of the legal aid system. Chairman of the Bar, Nicholas Green QC, said: "We welcome the fact that the government is examining the legal aid system. We look forward to making a substantial contribution to the work that is being undertaken and we will work with ministers in this regard."
In a second statement, Courts Minister Jonathan Djanogly said the justice system needs to adopt new technologies and we should not think about access to justice as simply a question of length of the journey to the nearest court. "When public finances are under pressure, it is vital to eliminate waste and reduce costs," Mr Djanogly said.
"The arrangements we have are historical and now need to be re-assessed to ask whether they properly meet the needs of communities as they are today - we increasingly use the internet and email to communicate and access services and we travel further to work, for leisure and to do our weekly shop. We now have the opportunity to think afresh about how we can create a more modern fit-for-purpose justice system in line with the way we live our lives today.
"Across the civil, family and criminal courts I want to explore ways we can harness technology more effectively so people don't necessarily have to physically attend court when they give evidence or access court services," he added.
Possible changes to the justice system that will be considered include more effective use of video and telephone links and other technology including online services.
The Magistrates' Association believes the court closures could threaten one of the fundamental principles of the justice system - local justice delivered by ordinary citizens in the communities where offences are committed. Over the last three years magistrates' courts have seen cuts in budgets of 7.5% each year, resulting in fewer courts due to staff shortages.
In a statement the Association said: "These proposals could mean that many court users including victims, witnesses and defendants may have long journeys to court - a disincentive to attend, resulting in further delays and extra expense".
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