Solicitors and barristers have reacted with anger to last-minute ‘cost-cutting’ proposals on pay for the most serious criminal cases, which they say ‘drive a coach and horses through two years of patient and careful negotiation’.

A Legal Services Commission consultation on fees for very high cost (criminal) cases (VHCCs) puts forward plans to extend the existing fixed-fee scheme for litigators and advocates, which is used in cases lasting up to 40 days, to cases lasting up to 60 days.

It will replace the current interim scheme, introduced in January 2008 after barristers boycotted the initial scheme due to low pay rates, and is due to run until 13 July 2010.

Law Society president Robert Heslett said the proposed scheme was ‘not viable’ and would make advocates less ­likely to take on such cases, which would have ‘serious implications’ for clients being able to obtain representation in long-running cases.

Over the past two years the Law Society and Bar Council have been working with the LSC and Ministry of Justice to develop a fee regime that works within the overall budget, and pays advocates rates that reflect the demands of each case, Heslett said.

The Bar Council and Law Society said the current proposal had not been under discussion with the LSC and MoJ, and had in fact been rejected by the government some time ago.

Heslett said: ‘It is a matter of great concern that the proposals were added in at the last minute without any proper ­discussion.’

Bar Council chairman Desmond Browne QC said: ‘This consultation paper drives a coach and horses through two years of patient and careful negotiation to develop a sound advocates’ pay scheme for the most complex terror and ­murder trials.

‘By looking to impose a short-term, unevaluated, cost-cutting scheme, ministers are guilty of precisely the shortcomings flagged up in [a recent] National Audit Office report on value for money in legal aid.’

LSC chief executive Carolyn Regan said: ‘The LSC is setting out a number of options for the most complex and expensive criminal cases that are designed to ensure clients continue to receive high-quality legal advice.

The LSC said that, out of the 1.6 million defendants who received criminal legal aid last year, about 400 were in the 100 VHCCs, which cost £112m, accounting for 10% of the criminal budget.