Britain's most senior female judge has criticised the government's plans to cut £350 million of spending on legal aid.
Supreme Court judge Baroness Hale warned that the planned withdrawal of legal aid from cases involving private family law, employment, immigration and clinical negligence, and some involving debt, housing and welfare, would "have a disproportionate effect upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society".
The planned reforms are part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment Bill, which will have its second reading in the Commons today.
Baroness Hale warned that the changes will lead to more people representing themselves in court, slowing down cases and costing the taxpayer more money than would have been spent on legal aid. "The idea that the law in some of these areas is simple and easy to understand is laughable," she said at the Henry Hodge Memorial lecture hosted by the Law Society on Monday evening.
Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society said today that a reduction in legal aid could lead to a rise in criminality as people seek vigilante-style retribution outside of the court system.
"This Bill, if enacted, will make our society a less fair place to live," Hudson said. He also warned that the bill would damage social cohesion by giving the wealthy access to a court system that will be closed to the poor in practice.
Others claim the cuts may lead to the closure of 56 English and Welsh law centres, which provide legal advice for those without access to a solicitor. Moves to end the right to free advice from a solicitor upon arrest have also been attacked, as have planned caps to compensation for wrongful arrest.
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke argues that reforms to legal aid are a necessary overhaul needed to reduce costs and make the justice system more efficient. In an interview with the Today programme this morning, the justice secretary repeated his claim that the UK's legal aid system is the costliest in Europe "by far".
Legal aid currently costs more than £2billion a year, according to the government, or £39 per capita, compared to £5 per capita in France, Spain and Germany. They argue that reforms to 'no win, no fee' deals and a greater reliance on mediation will help to reduce costs and lead to cheaper, quicker outcomes on more cases.
Clarke's opponents could sense an opportunity to roll back on some of the bill's most contentious measures after last week's U-turn on sentencing reform.
The justice secretary's initial plans to introduce 50 percent discounts for guilty pleas were abandoned by Downing Street after widespread criticism. The U-turn took out 3,400 of a planned 6,000 reduction in prisoner numbers from the 85,000 currently in the system, leaving a £140million hole in his department budget.