District council moves to block courts closure plans

A DISTRICT council is gearing up to mount a legal challenge against plans to close two magistrates courts within its boundaries.

Wychavon District Council is planning a judicial review to prevent the Hereford and Worcester Magistrates' Court Committee (MCC) from shutting Droitwich and Evesham Courts as part of a £15m Private

Finance Initiative (PFI) court rebuilding project, under which new courthouses may double up as conference centres or cinemas.

The committee last year announced the PFI scheme to build 17 courtrooms in an as yet unspecified number of court complexes and hopes it will be completed by 1999.

It says it has received a “substantial” number of expressions of interest from private sector consortiums eager to build and operate the new courts, which could be used for other public purposes in the evenings and weekends when they are not in use as courts.

The MCC argues that the scheme will provide better facilities for the area and that private capital is needed in the face of dwindling resources for its existing nine courthouses.

Wychavon Council solicitor Nigel Roberts said it was considering a legal challenge, not against the PFI scheme, but against the committee's decision to close the two courts within its boundaries which currently serve around 40,000 people.

“We want facilities to stay as local as possible so that justice can be seen to be done at a local level,” he said.

But the MCC's chief executive Nick Jones countered that only Hereford and Worcester County Council had the right to appeal against the courthouse closures.

He said a £200,000 cut in government funding meant Evesham, Bromsgrove and Ledbury courts faced imminent closure while under the PFI scheme Droitwich would also be closed within two years.

Any final decision on the courts closures rests with the Lord Chancellor, and a decision is expected in the spring.

The county council is wary of the PFI scheme and sympathetic to the plight of local courts although its top lawyer, Roger Yates, said it had not made any decision on whether to mount a legal challenge.