Legal aid reforms will hit the most vulnerable hardest, warns top judge

Law Society also attacks cuts that will 'fuel rise in criminality'

Britain's most senior female judge has delivered a damning verdict on Kenneth Clarke's plans to slash spending on legal aid, protesting that the cuts would have a "disproportionate effect upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society".

In a second blow to the Justice Secretary's austerity moves, the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has warned that the moves could fuel criminality as frustrated people take the law into their own hands.

The attack by Baroness Hale of Richmond comes as Mr Clarke's much- delayed plans to overhaul the criminal justice system are debated in the Commons today.

Under the measures, designed to save £350m, legal aid will be withdrawn from most cases of family breakdown, medical negligence, immigration, debt and welfare benefit, as well as some housing and education issues.

It will be reserved in future for claims where life or liberty is at stake, where there is risk of serious physical harm, homelessness or children being taken into care.

Tens of thousands of people would be forced to fund their own cases – impossible for many of them – if they could not persuade a lawyer to take it up on a "no win, no fee" basis.

The Law Society suggested that the sort of people who would lose out through the changes could include a baby injured because of a mistake at birth, a woman whose carer's benefit is wrongly stopped and a man whose former partner will not let him see his children.

The Independent disclosed last week that Mr Clarke has also announced moves to end the automatic right of people to receive free advice from a solicitor when they are arrested by police.

Critics are vowing to mount a determined drive to oppose and water down the measures in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment Bill. They believe they can muster enough support in the Lords to block some of its most contentious proposals.

The Bill's opponents received powerful backing as Lady Hale spoke out against moves to end legal aid for most civil cases. She said: "Family breakdown can easily lead people into debt, if debts are not tackled early and in the right way, they can easily lead to homelessness.

"People need the right advice and they need it early, before things have escalated into court. The idea that the law in some of these areas is simple and easy to understand is laughable. These plans will of course have a disproportionate effect upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society."

Lady Hale noted that ministers had acknowledged that the moves would have an excessive impact on women, the ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. "They say that this is justifiable because they are disproportionate users of the service in these areas. This is an interesting argument," she said.

In a submission today to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), the Law Society protests that the proposals would damage social cohesion by making it easy for the well-off to pursue civil cases through the courts.

Des Hudson, its chief executive, said: "This Bill, if enacted, will make our society a less fair place to live." He warned it could increase criminality as people not receiving legal aid take direct action to put right what they see as wrongs.

Other measures in the Bill that have dismayed campaigners include capping the compensation people receive when they are wrongly are wrongly prosecuted by the state and cuts in the damages received by the people who suffer severe injuries.

It also emerged yesterday that at least one-third of the 56 law centres in England and Wales, which provide free advice in poorer communities, could close because of their reliance on legal aid work.

An MoJ spokesman said: "Legal aid has expanded far beyond its original scope and is available for a wide range of issues, many of which should not require any legal expertise to resolve.

"Our measures are designed to ensure legal aid is targeted at the most serious cases and those who most need legal support. That is why we are retaining funding for mental health and community care work, domestic violence case and child abduction."

Case study: What legal aid meant to me

Clare Hook's 13-year-old daughter was diagnosed six years ago as having "dyslexic-type difficulties" and judged to be "below-average intelligence", in an assessment by the London Borough of Southwark.

Ms Hook, above, was convinced the conclusion the authority had reached was mistaken and had therefore placed her daughter into the wrong type of school.

Ms Hook fought a six-year battle – funded by legal aid – for her daughter's condition to be rediagnosed and was eventually vindicated at a tribunal at which the authority admitted its mistake.

The teenager was reassessed as suffering from "severe dyslexia" and a speech and language disorder and being of "average intelligence", and offered a different school. Ms Hook said: "Without legal aid, and the advice and support I received, my daughter would not be where she is today. Legal aid only works in the interest of the child – not in the interest of the local authority or the parent."