JUST four firms of solicitors will be able to offer free legal aid across the Thames Valley as a result of cutbacks lawyers say will hurt the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

Government plans to change legal aid will mean only four solicitors’ firms will be able to offer the service in the region – compared to more than 40 now.

And defendants earning more than £37,500 a year will not be entitled to free legal support in court.

Jan Matthews, managing director of Reeds Solicitors which has an office in Oxford, said firms would also only be paid the same if a client pleaded guilty or if they were defended in a trial.

He said: “The incentive will be to get guilty pleas in as soon as you can and do as little work as possible, as if you don’t you won’t make any money.”

He said the changes, which could be confirmed in August, would mean his firm would lose 35 per cent of its income and the criminal department would have to close.

And he also said a legal aid firm would not choose to be based in Oxford because the cost of renting office accommodation was so high.

The plans are part of a bid to slice £220m off the £1bn the Government currently spends on legal aid every year.

Firms will be able to bid to be one of four in the Thames Valley to provide legal aid services.

But the amount they can claim will be at least 17.5 per cent less than they currently receive.

Defendants will also not be able choose who represents them.

If approved the changes would come into force next year.

But city lawyers said some clients were already not receiving the help they need following reforms in April which removed large areas of law from the scope of civil legal aid.

Family law specialist Anne Davies, a solicitor at Withy King in New Inn Hall Street, said she has had to turn away people because they are no longer eligible for free help. She added: “I have had clients come in who are vulnerable people desperately in need of help and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

And John McNulty, a consultant at Temple Cowley-based solicitors firm Turpin& Miller, said: “I deal with vulnerable people, such as those who have been evicted, find themselves homeless and need to find alternative accommodation.

“As a result of the changes to legal aid, if a tenant has been experiencing harassment for months and wants assistance, I can’t get aid to proceed with a claim against the landlord. All I can do is give them some limited legal advice.”

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling defended the plans.

He said: “We have one of the best legal professions in the world.

“But at a time of major financial challenges, the legal sector cannot be excluded from the Government's commitment to getting better value for taxpayers’ money.”