Legal aid should be available to litigants who cannot afford representation only in cases where there is a ‘genuine public interest’, a Conservative former lord chancellor told a BBC documentary last night.

Kenneth Clarke told Panorama's DIY Justice that it had never been possible ‘just to say the taxman will give every [person] a lawyer’.

He said: ‘Why, if you’re very poor, you get paid by a taxpayer is a question worth asking. I’m in favour of doing that – but only where there is a genuine public interest in doing so, not just where it will give the litigant a better chance of winning in his or her opinion.’

Clarke (pictured), who was justice secretary between 2010-2012, suggested that funding for civil legal aid should be a low priority for governments.  

When no more money was needed for hospitals and schools, he said, ‘then probably we should start putting money back into legal aid. But you’ve got to ask what justice really requires and really means’.

Panorama, broadcast on the first day of the general election campaign, highlighted the effects of cuts to civil legal aid, resulting in the rise of self-representation in civil courts.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which came into force in April 2013, has cut the civil legal aid budget in England and Wales by £350m by removing state funding from most divorce, negligence and private family cases.

The government introduced a statutory exceptional case funding scheme, which provides legal aid where a failure to do so would breach rights under international law. The Legal Aid Agency planned for between 5,000 and 7,000 applications in 2013/14 – it received just 1,520, of which 69 were granted.

Jason Bruce, practice director at civil legal aid firm Duncan Lewis Solicitors, also appeared on the show, denying claims that legal aid was a ‘gravy train’ for lawyers.

He told Panorama that an average spend on legal aid at Duncan Lewis amounted to around £800 per client – and the vast majority of legal aid lawyers would be on a salary of around £22,000 to £40,000.

‘I think it’s really, really important that everyone fully understands that there is no gravy train – there is no bankrolling using the public purse’s money when it should be spent elsewhere.’

Former Court of Appeal judge Sir Alan Moses told Panorama there should be equality under the law, ‘not just the way law treats people equally but their ability to vindicate their rights [and] argue their cases irrespective of their means’.  

Family judge Nicholas Crichton, who pioneered the Family Drug and Alcohol Court in 2008, said the courtroom was a ‘very frightening’ place for ordinary members of the public. He said: ‘It does not matter how much you try and put them at their ease. They come in all tense and wound up about having to be in this arena.’