People of the so-called 'Windrush generation' may be denied justice because of legal aid cuts, the Law Society has said, drawing attention to official figures that show an alarming drop in the number of people who receive publicly funded immigration help.

Almost all non-asylum immigration cases were taken out of scope by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force in April 2013. According to the government's latest legal aid statistics, there were 22,496 newly initiated immigration non-asylum legal aid cases in 2012/13. In 2016/17, there were three.

Law Society president Joe Egan said: 'As far too many people who came to the UK as children now know, an immigration issue can quickly spiral out of control with disastrous consequences – jobs are lost, health and social services denied, and in the worst cases people are detained and face deportation, despite having every right to call this country their home.

'When the fallout can be so catastrophic, we believe that legal aid is essential so anybody facing such an unjust scenario can get legal advice right at the outset, whatever their circumstances. Thousands of people who were eligible for legal aid on [31 March 2013] became ineligible the very next day. When people cannot access advice or protect their rights, effectively those rights do not exist.

'The experiences of the Windrush generation illustrate how easily people can fall foul of complex immigration rules and an administration that routinely makes incorrect decisions. It is only just that everyone should have access to legal advice to navigate this labyrinthine system.'

Immigration specialists criticised the then home secretary Amber Rudd last week for suggesting that those who call a helpline to contact the Home Office do not need to instruct solicitors.

Egan said: 'It is vital that anyone affected gets independent legal advice so they know their rights and understand clearly what they need to do to settle their status and claim compensation if they have suffered as a result of Home Office errors. Removing lawyers from the process is a false economy and may prove damaging for people who rely on the Windrush helpline.'

The Ministry of Justice is currently reviewing the controversial 2013 act. Chancery Lane urged the ministry to restore and protect access to justice for everyone, regardless of their economic circumstances.