Criminal lawyers have today claimed that up to two thirds of law firms in the North East could close as the government slashes Legal Aid.
Lawyers raised fears in the wake of the failure of a national appeal to stop the number of available Legal Aid contracts being reduced.
The cuts, an extension of the government’s austerity program, could lead to miscarriages of justice for vulnerable people, campaigners say.
Lewis Pearson, vice-president of the Newcastle Law Society, said the changes represented a huge blow to the region, and Northumberland especially.
“The effect on the whole Legal Aid system will be profound and ultimately leading to a significant reduction in firms as well as reduction to justice,” he said.
“This is particularly the case in Northumberland where access to justice is already restricted.”
Mr Pearson, a partner at Pearson Caulfield solicitors in Newcastle, added:
“The issue is particularly important in our rural communities where there are many miles and people to cover.
“In the long run, those firms who do not have those contracts will waste away.”
Legal Aid is the help given to people that may not otherwise afford their own lawyers, and is a big source of income for many firms.
Proposals put forward by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling last year will see the number of contracts available cut from 1,600 to 527 across the UK to save money.
In the North East, the number of Legal Aid contracts available will fall from 60 to 12.
North of the Tyne, seven companies will be awarded the contracts for magistrates’ courts in Newcastle, Bedlington and North Shields.
Only five will be awarded for the courts in Gateshead, Sunderland and South Shields.
Last week the Law Society, the body representing solicitors, asked appeal court judges to rule that the cuts were not viable and contained “serious defects”, but the court turned down their bid.
Now, lawyers’ groups have called for the changes to become “an election issue”, saying they will threaten access to justice for many accused of crime, especially the vulnerable.
Elspeth Thomson, Legal Aid chair of the Law Society, said:
“Once you reach a tipping point where lawyers have gone under, there won’t be anyone there in police stations to advise people of their rights.
“The government make it sound like it is about loaded lawyers making the big bucks but it is not. It is about day-to-day lives, where normal people are needing help.”
But the Ministry of Justice says the changes are necessary to make savings, and anyone who needs access to a lawyer will still get it.
A spokesman said:
“Our legal aid reforms are designed to ensure the system is fair for those who need it, the lawyers who provide services as part of it and importantly the taxpayers who ultimately pay for it.
“We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and even after reform it will remain very generous – costing around £1.5bn a year.
“Anyone suspected of a crime will still have access to a legal aid lawyer of their choosing after reform, just as they do now.”
Last year, North East solicitors and probation service staff took part in 48 hours of protests at cuts to Legal Aid and the privatisation of court services.
Legal workers picketed outside courts across the region and rallied at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle last April, voicing fears for the future of their professions.