Sudbury magistrates court dual role?

PUBLISHED: 14:15 25 May 2002 | UPDATED: 12:00 03 March 2010

THE long-term future of one of Suffolk's magistrates' courts may have been safeguarded after it emerged it could soon start hearing civil cases as well as criminal.

THE long-term future of one of Suffolk's magistrates' courts may have been safeguarded after it emerged it could soon start hearing civil cases as well as criminal.

Sudbury is one of just 37 towns nationwide recommended to have a new county court – likely to be based within the magistrates' court – following a review by the Lord Chancellor's Department.

The review was designed to improve access to the civil courts, but could also offer long-term survival to many provincial magistrates' courts – like Sudbury.

If it goes ahead, it would mark a complete reversal in Sudbury, which saw the town's county court close down in 1994 after 100 years. All the town's civil matters were then transferred to courts in Bury St Edmunds or Colchester.

At the time, South Suffolk MP Tim Yeo called for the county court facility to be transferred to the town's magistrates' court – and he could finally get his wish nearly a decade on.

Under the new proposals, the Lord Chancellor's Department could hire parts of magistrates' courts to house the newly expanded civil courts, which are going to increase by 15% in England and Wales.

A total of 37 towns, including Sudbury, Thetford and Clacton, which do not have county or family courts have been earmarked for the new civil hearing venues.

Long time campaigner for the preservation of local justice Lord Phillips of Sudbury said: "I have been pressing multi-use of court buildings on the Government and I am delighted it is now coming back into the reckoning.

"Sudbury town hall used to double up as a magistrates' court and a county court and it worked very well. I am particularly delighted Sudbury has been named as a place where the dual use of the magistrates'court will be considered. The most important thing of all is preserving local justice."

A spokesman for the LCD said: "It certainly would assist the viability of vulnerable magistrates' courts. We are saying that 37 towns which currently do not have county courts will have access to civil hearings under the scheme, but this will not involve opening new county courts.

"We are talking about using existing magistrates' courts and perhaps other appropriate buildings such as town halls."

The scheme could see the new court centres run on a full or part-time basis. There are currently 218 county courts and 16 hired hearing centres in England and Wales. The LCD predicts the total number of court centres will rise to 275.

The review, called Modernising the Civil and Family Courts, will go out for public consultation later in the year.

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