Defendants on low incomes are having to make contributions to legal costs - forcing them to choose between legal representation or avoiding slipping into poverty, the Law Society has warned.

According to a Chancery Lane report, the means testing of legal aid is set at a level that can require people on low incomes to make contributions that are way beyond their means.

The report, commissioned by the Society and written by professor Donald Hirsch at Loughborough University, analyses the affordability of legal advice for those who are not eligible for legal aid and those who earn enough that they are required to make a contribution towards their costs.

It also considers the income available to people whose incomes are just too high to receive any legal aid in the magistrates’ court but just high enough to require an income-based contribution in the Crown court.

According to the report, someone earning more than £17,000 is denied any legal aid in a magistrates’ court. But after their contributions towards defence costs in the Crown court have been taken into account they end up with only about half the amount they need to cover living costs. It warns that after paying the required contribution in the Crown court, those on low incomes can end up 41% to 53% below the minimum income standard – leaving them with less than half of what they need for essential living costs.

People in this situation can end up with incomes of about 20% below the recognised poverty line, the report warned.

A lone parent working full time, and earning above the minimum wage, may end up with less income available than they would if they were out of work and relying on minimum benefits (in which case they would be exempt from paying legal costs), the report noted.

The minimum income standard is defined as the minimum acceptable standard of living which ordinary people should not have to fall below to meet their essential living costs. It breaks down the cost of living and how much should be set aside for basic essentials each year. However, the Society’s report warns that the estimates on which the system is based have not been updated since 2008, since when the average cost of living has risen by more than a quarter.