Last night lawyers and MPs warned measures pioneered by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, to shave £220million from the £2billion legal aid bill, would transform Britain?s legal system from one of the world?s most respected to that of a "banana republic?.
"We are all in grave danger of being out of jobs in just over a year if these measures go through,? said one solicitor last night.
About 1,600 firms offer legal aid for criminal cases. The Transforming Legal Aid proposals, under consultation, will see that slashed to 400, with contracts for criminal work tendered for the lowest bid going to mega law shops run by bulk providers like Tesco, security firm G4S and haulier Eddie Stobart.
Under the plans, defendants who cannot afford to pay for advocates will no longer choose a legal aid provider but be assigned one. The legal experts will be paid one fee for the case regardless of their performance and whether or not a client pleads guilty.
Without criminal work, firms will not be able to afford to offer other services, leaving anyone needing civil work like conveyancing no choice but to go to online providers.
"The reality of these plans is that upwards of 1,500 firms will leave that market, and many or even most will close their doors for the last time,? said barrister Chris Jeyes at Lincolnshire solicitors Bird & Co and author of the popular blog Barrister 999.
Oliver Kirk, of Kent-based solicitors BKRW, said: "Just imagine you are accused of something you haven?t done. You would want to be represented by someone who was experienced and who you could trust. Instead, you may well find that your nearest provider is 50 miles away and he is young and inexperienced, and is going to be paid more if you plead guilty because, under the one-fee arrangement, he has no incentive to consult with you, take witness statements or instruct experts.?
He added: "This is not about lawyers defending guilty people and getting them off. It?s about people having confidence in the justice system so they know it works; it?s about protecting people so when somebody is found guilty the public know they are guilty.?
The loss of High Street solicitors would also have a severe impact on barristers. Michael Turner QC, head of the Criminal Bar Association, warned: "Our barristers? system will fail. Our brilliant judiciary comes from the Bar. Once you have Tesco and G4S providing advocates, you will get Tesco and G4S judges in 10 years? time. Make no bones about it, we are facing absolute devastation to what is the finest legal system in the world.?
He rejected claims that Britain?s legal aid was the most expensive in Europe. "You have a different system there, with investigative magistrates who interview witnesses, and the big cost is the judicial spend.?
He added that more than 90 per cent of Britain's Legal Aid bill is spent on just one per cent of cases, usually complicated bank fraud cases.
"There are other ways to save the money," he said.
"The majority of fraud cases are generated by banks with poor regulatory systems. But the banks don't take civil action. They allow the taxpayer to fund the prosecution first and then, if they get a conviction, they use it. We believe banks should be levied for these prosecutions."
Further millions could be saved by scrapping the Victim Surcharge scheme, which fines convicted murderers £120.
"Most victims I have dealt with would spit at that money. And in the meantime, civil servants are charged to try to get these sums from criminals that have already been sentenced to life in prison. It's a total waste of time and resources," he added.
Robert Buckland, MP for South Swindon added: "These measures are disastrous.
"If courts were allowed to keep the proceeds from confiscation orders against big drug dealers, instead of that money going to the Treasury, it would make a massive difference."