A TEESDALE magistrate yesterday expressed concerns over the proposed closure of Bishop Auckland magistrates' court.

Mr Eric Fell believes centralisation plans will also eventually lead to the closure of the courts at Darlington and Newton Aycliffe.

He said it would be preposterous if defendants had to travel up to 45 miles from Upper Teesdale to Peterlee.

The County Durham magistrates' courts committee is consulting police, councils and the Crown Prosecution service about closing courts at Bishop Auckland and Consett by the end of the year.

It says Consett is the most expensive court in the county to maintain - £115,984 over five years - and Bishop Auckland is second at £70,517.

Five courts would be left at Darlington, Durham, Peterlee, Chester-le-Street and Newton Aycliffe. All were built in the 60s.

A £2m replacement magistrates court is being built in Peterlee, and custody cases would be transferred their under the bid to centralise the system. It would lead to journeys of up to 45 miles from Teesdale - one of the lowest car owning districts in the country.

Mr Fell, former chief executive of Teesdale District Council, believes Darlington and Bishop Auckland court closures are inevitable.

He said: "I only hope that the North and the South of Durham will be left with one court each. It makes sense to centralise the system to get value for money from staff and buildings, but local people lose out as far as local justice is concerned. People in Middleton-in-Teesdale find it hard enough to get to Bishop Auckland by bus, never mind Newton Aycliffe.

"If Newton Aycliffe closes as well, it would be preposterous to make people travel from the upper dale to Peterlee for a court appearance at 10am. How could it be done using public transport?"

His views were echoed by former Barnard Castle magistrate of 20 years, Mrs Virginia Trotter. She left the service last year when Barnard Castle closed. "Closing Bishop Auckland is yet again taking local justice away from people," she said. "Newton Aycliffe is a long way from the upper dale. If you have no money and have to be at court for 10am it will be really difficult with no direct bus service.

"If they end up travelling to Peterlee, it will just create more wasted court time and money."

The courts committee report said: "The magistrates' courts committee is firmly of the view that the county can manage its business with fewer court houses than the seven currently operating."

A final decision will not be made on the proposals until summer.