Changes to the legal aid system could lead to miscarriages of justice and job losses, charities and leading lawyers have warned.
The proposed changes been met with widespread resistance as the Ministry of Justice attempts to save £220 million a year from the country's £2.2 billion legal bill.
The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has backtracked on one unpopular proposal - to remove a client's right to choose a solicitor when they receive legal aid – but presses on with plans to pay lawyers the same fee for a not guilty plea as they would be paid for a guilty plea.
Currently, lawyers are paid more legal aid for defendants making not guilty pleas, which involve more time and work to represent. Concerns have been raised in Parliament that the fee change could lead to innocent individuals being persuaded to plead guilty.
Responding to the issue, raised by Conservative Dartford MP Gareth Johnson House of Commons Justice Select Committee, Mr Grayling replied: "We're not going to get into a situation where people who are innocent are being coerced into pleading guilty for financial reasons. I don't believe those standards exist in the legal profession."
Legal aid reforms
As part of the Ministry of Justice's reforms to legal aid, financial support is being withdrawn for many family cases, leaving vulnerable people without legal representation. As a result, it is feared that some people may attempt to represent themselves in court – leading to longer cases and unfair trials.
Debra Stevens, divorce lawyer and author of 'How2Divorce' comments: "Of course it is the vulnerable groups of society such as single parents and those who are out of work and dependent upon state benefits that will be worst affected, but in today's recession an increased number of people cannot afford to instruct a solicitor so it is likely that we will all be affected to some degree by these changes."
Derek Marshall, barrister and deputy head of College Chambers in Southampton, adds: "I fully believe the result of this process will be serious miscarriages of justice. Quite apart from all the harm this will do to clients, it is likely to be more expensive to put right in the long term."
The funding cuts are expected to impact heavily on small law firms reliant upon legal aid, with job losses predicted as firms are forced to merge or close.
Addressing MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Grayling denied he wanted large corporate law firms taking over but said consolidation is needed within the legal profession.
Yet cuts will undoubtedly change the landscape of legal representation in the UK, warns Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citzen's Advice: "Further cuts to legal aid funding threaten the fundamental principle of the universal right to access justice.
"The Government's consultation is focused on criminal cases but if people simply can't talk to a solicitor as more and more firms are forced to close, then the knock-on effects could be devastating for everyone in society, not just the individuals facing charges."