HIGH street law firms are under threat from major reforms to the criminal legal aid system - local practitioners have warned.

Criminal defence solicitors, Rachel Broughton and Suzie Kavanagh, say the changes will also mean defendants losing the right to choose their local duty solicitor.

The pair, who respectively work for Holdens and Milne Moser in Kendal and practice at South Lakeland Magistrates' Court, are urging people to sign an online petition before the changes become a reality.

The Ministry of Justice is consulting on government proposals aimed at saving some £220 million of public funds spent every year on the legal aid bill in England and Wales.

Access to a legal aid solicitor is a service provided to those on low-incomes, benefits and the most vulnerable in society.

In its consultation, MOJ says that change in the criminal legal aid system is necessary against the ‘continuing financial pressure on public finances’.

One of the more controversial changes is the introduction of ‘price-competitive tendering’.

It admits this will radically cut the number of law firms which have the right to take on legal aid caseloads - dropping from the current 1,600 across England and Wales, to just 400.

Both solicitors say legal aid cases represent around 80 per cent of their work and would most likely mean larger out-of-county law firms pitching for the 'contract' to provide legal aid services and solicitors across Cumbria.

Ms Kavanagh explained the effect: “People will miss being able to call in the office when they have a query and they will miss having someone who knows them and their background, or their medical or mental health history or some who actually cares.

"We often get up in the middle of the night to go to the police station when someone has been arrested and are back in court the next day if they are before the magistrate.”

Ms Broughton described the consequences of what is being proposed as ‘far-reaching’ for society.

She said a single legal firm - probably from outside of Cumbria - would more than likely win the tender to provide the duty solicitor service for police stations in Kendal, Barrow, Workington and Carlisle.

Ms Broughton said: “The current proposals would destroy the system in the name of financial savings of £220 million - costs that are likely to be lost within the protracted and complicated tendering process.”

"It's not a glamorous job, it's a public service. The only attraction is the being able to help people when they are at their most vulnerable."

The online petition requires over 100,000 signatures but has only achieved  34,000, and there is less than a month until the consultation closes.

It can be signed at http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/ and is found under the heading Save UK Justice.

Those who would prefer to submit their responses via e-mail may send them to legalaidreformmoj@justice.gsi.gov.uk or in hard copy to Annette Cowell, Legal Aid Reform, Ministry of Justice, 102 Petty France, London, SW1H 9AJ.

The deadline for responses is midnight on June 4, 2013 and the Government will respond to the consultation in autumn.