One in three of Britain's law centres, where solicitors provide legal advice to poorer communities, face closure because of the squeeze on public spending.
They are being hit hard because of cuts both to the legal aid budget and to town hall grants, the Law Centres Federation warned last night. It forecast that at least 18 of the 56 offices could be forced to shut.
The centres are typically in areas of high deprivation and 80 per cent of clients are from the ethnic minorities.
The threat to their future follows the closure of two other voluntary organisations offering free legal help – the Immigration Advisory Service and Law For All.
Campaigners last night warned that some of the most vulnerable sections of society would be affected – and could even take the law into their own hands as a result.
The network is in jeopardy because of £350m cuts to legal aid spending on family breakdown, medical negligence, immigration, debt and welfare benefit. In addition, legal aid rates are being cut by 10 per cent in the autumn.
On average law centres, which are non profit-making, receive nearly half of their income from legal aid, although it accounts for at least 60 per cent of the receipts of the 18 centres in danger. Another 40 per cent comes from town halls, which are under huge pressure to find savings as their central government grants are slashed.
Julie Bishop, the federation's director, forecast that the number of cases handled by the centres each year would drop from 120,000 to 40,000. She said: "Cutting off these services to clients who come to us when their lives are in a mess means these problems will just fester and become even more costly for Government. It's a completely false saving."
A spokesman for the Sound Off for Justice, which is campaigning against the legal aid cuts, described the moves as a "vicious attack on the most vulnerable in our society."
A Ministry of Justice spokesman paid tribute to the "important contribution that not-for-profit organisations play in delivering valuable services at a local level". But he added: "At more than £2bn each year, we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world which we cannot continue to afford."