CHIPPENHAM courts - only opened in 1997 - are to close as part of a £700 million cost-cutting exercise.

A total of 86 courthouses across England and Wales will shut in a move being described as part of a £700 million revamp to modernise the justice system.

Justice minister Shailesh Vara said the courts being closed were used for only a third of their available time on average - equivalent to less than two days a week - and many were unsuited to the use of modern technology.

The £700m investment over the next four years will include the installation of modern IT systems and wifi to allow online plea, claims and evidence systems and video conferencing, reducing the need for people to travel to court, he said.

But unions warned the closures will "seriously undermine" the local access to courts that is vital to public confidence in the system.

Last year The Law Society said that closing Chippenham Magistrates’ Court, Civil Court and Family Court would deepen inequalities in the justice system.

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In their response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on proposals to close courts and tribunals across England and Wales, The Law Society recommended that Chippenham courthouse stay open.

In October, Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: "The proposed closure of Chippenham Magistrates’ Court, Civil Court and Family Court will make it more difficult for a significant number people to get to court, and the closures will more adversely affect people with disabilities and lower income families."

Public and Commercial Services union general secretary Mark Serwotka said the shake-up was driven by "a political choice to cut public spending".

Following a consultation into proposals to close 91 out of the 460 court buildings in England and Wales, five - in St Helens, Stockport, West Cumbria, Bath and Carmarthen have been reprieved - while proposals for alternative venues have been changed in another 22 cases.

In a written statement to Parliament, Mr Vara said: "It will still be the case that after these closures, over 97% of citizens will be able to reach their required court within an hour by car.

"This represents a change of just one percentage point for both criminal and county courts. The proportion able to reach a tribunal within an hour by car will remain unchanged at 83%.

"For each proposal in the consultation, we have considered access to justice; value for money; and efficiency."

But Mr Serwotka said: "The closures would seriously undermine access to local courts that is crucial not only for the administration of justice but also public confidence in the justice system.

"The plans are not being driven by need or what will work, but by a political choice to cut public spending.

"It is impossible to know whether the Government's case on better use of technology stacks up because these decisions are being taken before it has been properly developed and tested."

Cases were transferred to Chippenham after the closure of Trowbridge County Court in 2010, but the Ministry of Justice says that Chippenham is not busy enough, even though it is nearly as busy as average for courts in England and Wales.

When Chippenham courts close, cases will be transferred to Swindon and 66% of users are expected to have to travel for over one hour by public transport to reach court.

The Law Society argue that this would represent a considerable blow to access to justice in Wiltshire.

Chippenham courthouse, which opened in 1997, is believed to be in good condition with no security, health and safety or Equality Act issues.