HARLOW could get a new magistrates court complex as part of £30m proposals to provide modern courts and office accommodation across the county.

Essex Magistrates Court Committee says the scheme to provide 25 courtrooms in five new or refurbished court houses is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to provide purpose-built facilities that will enable Essex's courts to be run more effectively and efficiently.

The package of plans could spell the end for Epping court, which at the moment shares the workload with Harlow but deals mainly with trials.

Concern has been raised that the closure of the Epping court the only court in the Epping Forest district would mean additional journey times for defendants, witnesses, police officers and legal representatives.

The blueprint, which is out for public consultation until the end of the month, proposes a facelift and possible extension to the present Harlow courthouse, situated behind the police station, into a single four-courtroom building.

Another option is the building of a new four-court building in or around Harlow.

The court committee's director of administration, Richard Hawkes, said the future of Epping court was still undecided and was something which would be decided "a lot further down the line". But the shake-up could spell the end for the building, he said.

He added that the Epping court was now only used for criminal trials and non-police cases with Harlow court handling all other cases.

Mr Hawkes said: "Whether you appear at Epping or Harlow has nothing to do with where you live or where the crime is committed. It depends on what the case is."

He said that only 13 per cent of the defendants appearing at Epping court were from the Epping Forest district, and because it dealt with trials, which took longer than other hearings, only a small number of people passed through the court each week.

Of the county's nine courthouses only three Harlow, Basildon and Southend have been purpose-built since the Second World War with only Basildon built in the last 35 years.

Essex Magistrates Court chief executive Peter McGuirk said: "We see this as a great opportunity to provide a service which is fit for the 21st century and we will work very hard to try to ensure the final plans represent the best interests of everyone who uses the magistrates courts in Essex."