Dorset to lose nine courthouses

Dorset's 11 magistrates courts will be reduced to two by 2007 under the county's Magistrates Courts Committee's (MCC) new strategic plan.

The plan, the most radical reorganisation of courthouses in the UK, has already been condemned by local lawyers and magistrates.

In August, The Lawyer conducted an exclusive survey of all non-metropolitan magistrates courts in England and Wales which showed that nearly a third had closed since 1987.

Dorset had escaped relatively unscathed but now ever-tightening financial constraints imposed by the Lord Chancellor's Department have forced the radical closure plan.

The MCC argues that the 11 courthouses are under-used, sitting for 14,000 hours a year – far below their capacity of 29,000.

The committee envisages only two super-courts, in Dorchester and in Bournemouth/Poole, with perhaps one in Blandford.

Courts at Christchurch and Gillingham are earmarked for closure within nine months, while Sherborne and Wimborne are vulnerable as well.

By 2007 Wareham, Bridport and Weymouth will probably have gone, says the plan.

Harry Barnes, chair of the Dorset MCC, said: “We have had to react to severe budget cuts in recent years and there is no indication that we will not be again asked to do more with less in the future.”

Anne Fuller, chair of the Magistrates Association, said: “It is reaching the point when the number of courts has been reduced to such a level that it must be questioned whether justice is being sacrificed for the sake of cost.”

Fuller added that the savings were a false economy. She said: “For a large county area where public transport and road connections are poor, a proposal to reduce the number of courthouses to as few as two would give many court users long and often difficult journeys, all incurring extra time and cost to the taxpayer.”

Michael Harvey, secretary of the Dorset Law Society, predicted the plan would be strongly opposed.

“It means solicitors will be travelling more and that is very expensive in legal aid,” he said.

“Our clients will be fed up because many of them have no transport.”