A Cabinet minister has pledged that cuts to legal aid will not undermine justice in rural areas – even though an upheaval to state-funded solicitors will go ahead.
The Ministry of Justice's plans to save £220 million from the legal aid budget includes issuing only ten contracts across the whole of Devon and Cornwall, leading to fears that high street firms will be crushed and solicitors will struggle to cover the whole region.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told the Western Morning News he is "acutely aware of the rural issue" after MPs raised concerns over the proposals, which will be finalised this month.
Sir Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon, has warned local solicitors will be crowded out by "mega law shops" many miles away from where people need help and Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon, also raised concerns over the "decimation" of specialist firms.
Mr Grayling said: "We never suggested a reduction in the number of contracts meant that firms had to disappear, that people within those firms had to disappear.
"We need to make significant savings within the legal aid world. We're going to need to ask legal aid law firms to operate at a lower level of price than at the moment. But at the same time we have to make sure that there is a service available.
"What I can't do is be in a position where cutting the fees means all the legal aid provision in an area disappears."
But he added Britain has "the most expensive legal aid system in the world" – up to three times more expensive than comparable countries.
Mr Grayling, also the Lord Chancellor, expects "firms working more closely together, sharing back-office operations, forming partnerships to do things together at lower cost".
"And the Law Society itself accepted there would need to be some consolidation," he said. "We have 1,600 providers at the moment, a lot a one-man or woman operations."
But he promised: "The changes that we've put forward do not involve the situation where people can't get access to justice, we are absolutely committed to ensuring everyone who is arrested and taken to a police station then brought before a court has access to a lawyer to defend them."
Devon law firm Slee Blackwell has warned the proposals could be "hugely damaging to the criminal law system and to local justice".