A SHAKE-UP of magistrates’ courts in County Durham - which could see defendants facing journey times of up to two hours - has been criticised for 'setting people up to fail.'

At present, road traffic cases in County Durham are split between magistrates’ courts in Darlington, Newton Aycliffe and Peterlee.

However from March 31, under new proposals by the Criminal Justice System Efficiency Programme, Darlington Magistrates’ Court will act as a centralised road traffic court and hear all road traffic cases for the county, as well as dealing with adult trials and private prosecutions.

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From April, because the court does not have cell facilities, it will also no longer hold first hearings in adult crime cases – instead these will be dealt with at Newton Aycliffe.

Darlington solicitor, Graham Hunsley, said he feared the plans could spell the closure of the town’s court, which he described as the busiest in County Durham.

He also said more people may not attend court hearings, adding: “Newton Aycliffe isn’t a natural centre for people to get to. If you are on something like £50 or £60 a week benefits, and if you take £5 out of that to get to Aycliffe it is a big chunk of money gone.”

Under the new proposals, Peterlee Magistrates’ Court will deal with general crime and private prosecutions, as well as remand court every day of the week.

It will also act as a centralised domestic violence court for the county in a bid to reduce the number of prosecutions that do not result in a conviction.

Consett Magistrates’ Court will reduce to two days a week to deal with adult custody cases, adult crime cases and adult trials.

Youth court will be held at Newton Aycliffe every Monday.

Staff working at the courts have described the changes as 'ridiculous' and said it was setting people up to fail by making it difficult for them to attend court.

One member of staff, who asked not to be named, said: “We can’t understand why they would take the general court away from Darlington – it’s on the main line for trains and it has a better bus network.

“It will probably mean that many more people won’t turn up for court and that will mean they will have to be tracked down under a warrant and taken to court, at more expense to the public.”

An HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) spokesperson said: "HMCTS, in conjunction with the judiciary, routinely reviews local listing arrangements, taking into account changes in workload in order to make the best use of resources and facilities for users and taxpayers alike.”