A small district council legal department has convinced the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, to keep two magistrates courts open after a string of closures across England and Wales.

Now solicitor Nigel Roberts, who led Wychavon District Council's successful fight to retain its local courts, is urging other councils not to accept court closures as a fait accompli.

“Councils must stand up to the Magistrates Courts Committee decisions,” said Roberts.

The four-strong Wychavon Council legal team began its fight to keep Droitwich and Evesham Courts late last year following the Hereford and Worcester Magistrates Court Committee (MCC) decision to close them to save money.

Roberts had to first convince the nearby Hereford and Worcester County Council to take advantage of its statutory rights to take the case for keeping the courts open to the Lord Chancellor.

Having done this, Roberts, who is now the head of legal services at Oxfordshire District Council, said Wychavon had helped build a case for keeping the courts for its 40,000 council taxpayers. “We were arguing the case on the basis of the magistrates courts being the very basis of local justice,” he said.

Lord Irvine agreed with this and is understood to have seen no budgetary reason to close the courts.

A Lord Chancellor's Department spokesman said it was the first time a planned closure had been overturned for five years and that Lord Irvine would continue to look at each case on its merits.

A survey by The Lawyer conducted in August showed that nearly a third of all non-metropolitan magistrates courts in England and Wales had closed in the last decade.

In October it was announced that nine Dorset courthouses will close, while four magistrate courts in Cumbria are also under threat.

Chris Fogarty

See back page