Legal aid lawyers have condemned as deplorable the decision by the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) to freeze legal aid fees.
A statement from the LCD last Friday said: "Having carefully considered the representations made by the Law Society and the Bar during this year's remuneration discussions there will not be any changes made to the current prescribed rates of remuneration or standard fees paid to lawyers undertaking legal aid work."
Last year the Lord Chancellor increased rates by between 1.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent.
For non-franchised firms, which received a smaller increase than franchised firms, that meant increases below the rate of inflation. Then, Lord Mackay had said he was "keen to encourage legal aid work of good quality".
News of the latest freeze has angered practitioners, who claim it will restrict access to legal aid.
The Law Society said that since 1992 solicitors' overheads had grown by 15 per cent while fees had barely increased at all.
"Legal aid lawyers have had to absorb what are, in effect, cuts in legal aid," said the society.
A statement from Chancery Lane said that instead of tackling the real problems of legal aid - such as the lack of control over QCs' fees, delays in civil and criminal courts and the increasing complexity of new laws - the Government had restricted access to legal aid for people on modest incomes and penalised high street solicitors.
The president, Tony Girling, said it was hardly surprising the LCD had made such a decision after so much "ill-informed anti-legal aid rhetoric".
"This decision will only hasten the day when many small firms decide they can no longer afford to subsidise the legal aid system by working for fees which are less than the cost of running their office."
A Bar Council spokesman said lawyers were now being paid less than plumbers to do work concerning the liberty of individuals. "This is nothing short of a shameful show of electioneering by a Government department of whom we expected more," he said.
The co-chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, Bill Montague, condemned the fee freeze as "insidious".
He said: "It's sadly fitting that this administration's parting gesture to legal aid is a slap in the face." Montague added that firms were being forced to do less legal aid work, and he predicted that the latest move to freeze increases would lead to a number of firms going out of business.