THE Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has given a strong indication that he is preparing to halve the number of magistrates' areas in England and Wales from 96 to 42.
He told the annual general meeting of the Magistrates' Association that such a move would correspond with the current reorganisation of the Crown Prosecution Service into 42 areas, one for each police force.
"How many separate, independent, administrative units are there in the magistrates' court system? More than twice as many as for the police or the CPS - is this really necessary?" asked Lord Irvine.
But his announcement will raise fears among JPs and magistrates' court staff that halving the number of areas will reduce local management and accelerate the already high rate of court closures.
Alan Baldwin, justices' clerk and justices' chief executive at Hounslow Magistrates Court, said that closures of magistrates' courts had happened only in the larger of the existing areas.
Baldwin said it was important that magistrates' courts be managed locally and "be seen to be managed locally".