Kenneth Clarke faced anger last night after threatening to scrap the automatic right of arrested suspects to receive free advice from a solicitor.
As part of a drive to save £2bn from his department's budget, the Justice Secretary has announced moves to means-test suspects who want access to a lawyer provided by the state. Critics say the plan would undermine the right to equal treatment under the law regardless of background and create a new layer of bureaucracy that would hinder the criminal justice system.
The move is in addition to cuts of £350m on legal aid, withdrawing it from most family disputes, as well as from medical negligence, employment, immigration, housing and debt cases. Free legal help has been guaranteed to suspects as soon as they are arrested under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984. In custody, they are entitled to advice on their legal position and to ask for a solicitor in any initial interview with police. The Act was brought in by Margaret Thatcher's government after a series of cases in which police were accused of intimidating and misleading suspects or falsifying statements.
The new Sentencing and Legal Aid Bill opens the door to people's financial circumstances being taken into account before they are put in touch with a solicitor. Thousands – many of whom not eventually prosecuted – could face hefty legal bills as a result because they are deemed too well-off. The Bill says that "advice and assistance... is not currently means-tested" but will provide "the flexibility to make it so in the future if it is considered appropriate".
The Law Society said the practical problems of the move, and the implications for equal access to justice, were "horrendous". Richard Miller, its head of legal aid, said: "Having free legal advice as soon as possible is a cornerstone of the criminal justice system."
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "There are no plans to make any changes at this time."