Courts facing closure announced

Fears were raised for the future of locally-based justice last night as ministers confirmed magistrates' and county courts across East Anglia were to close.

Magistrates' courts in Wisbech, Thetford, Cromer and Swaffham will shut along with Lowestoft County Court. The workload will be transferred to Great Yarmouth, Norwich and King's Lynn.

Last night Paul Allen, chairman of Norwich magistrates, said the decision would make appearing in court a more daunting experience for victims and witnesses.

He said: 'We have to be realistic and recognise that courts can't be exempt from funding cuts. But at the same time it is very disappointing.

'In a county like Norfolk, travel can be problematic. If you are talking about a witness who is already reluctant to give evidence, it could tip the balance.

'Courts have the power to issue witness warrants but that is a heavy handed technique.

'The reality is that it will become harder for justice to be done and be seen to be done on a local level.'

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More than 140 courts will be closed in England and Wales, the government said. Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly said the closure will include 93 magistrates' courts and 49 county courts.

Only 15 of the courts included in the government's consultation will be saved. Mr Djanogly said: 'We are closing the worst courts in the estate so we can concentrate our limited resources on the best ones.

'It is unacceptable that dozens of buildings never intended to be, and not fit to be, modern court buildings are still in use.'

As part of the controversial proposals, �22m of capital will be reinvested to improve and modernise the courts which will receive extra work as a result of the closures.

Lowestoft County Court is to close but the town's magistrates court, which operates from the same building, will remain open. Some county court hearings may still be heard in the town but the bulk of the work will be moved to neighbouring courts.

Waveney MP Peter Aldous, who has led a high profile campaign to save the county court, questioned the decision.

He said: 'It is disappointing to hear the news because it is the wrong decision to make as the court covers a large area.

'I have had a lot of people coming to me saying it will affect them.

'It will be the most vulnerable who are affected, such as the disabled, as they face going to Norwich instead.'

South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss made representations arguing that Thetford magistrates should be saved from the axe.

She said: 'I am disappointed by the decision. What I'm concerned about is justice needing to be seen to be done locally and people being aware of what's happening in the justice system.

'I'm pleased there's going to be an allowance for people to travel to Bury rather than Norwich but it is a long way to go.

'One of the things I wanted to push forward to the justice committee is that we don't have too much centralisation of things like magistrates' courts and prison because the local community will become less engaged in the system and that creates mistrust.'

Cromer town mayor Yvonne Nolan also expressed disappointment but added: 'I suppose money has to be saved somewhere.'

Ian Sherwood, Swaffham mayor and district councillor, said: 'I do believe justice is better administered locally. I think it makes it fairer for all concerned if justice is seen to be done locally, but running these courts is expensive.

'All services are having to be reviewed. I understand the position the government suddenly finds itself in.'