The lord chancellor says a controversial new fixed fee regime for immigration and asylum work is an 'interim measure' - after he was accused of piling on more pressure on legal aid practitioners who are struggling to survive financially.

A statutory instrument introducing a £627 asylum fixed fee came into force on Monday. The appellant’s skeleton argument must be prepared earlier.

Practitioners say the scheme essentially amounts to a fee cut for solicitors barely coping with existing fee levels. Duncan Lewis, one of the country’s biggest legal aid firms, served a letter before action on the lord chancellor last month challenging the lawfulness of the fee change.

Labour has tabled a ‘prayer’ to annul the reforms. Shadow legal aid minister Karl Turner MP questioned the lord chancellor on the fees during justice questions in the commons yesterday.

Turner said: ‘Legal aid lawyers, often doing the most complex cases, are already struggling for their financial survival, but the justice secretary now plans to pile on more pressure through reforms of fixed fees in immigration and asylum appeal cases. He knows that this change means that lawyers will be forced to do more for an awful lot less or will simply walk away, so will he acknowledge that this ploy, pretending to give with one hand but snatching far more away with the other, will further drive lawyers away from representing the most vulnerable people? Will he now commit to working constructively with those professions to find a better and fairer alternative?’

The lord chancellor replied that the government is trying to make sure that the work done in immigration cases, which often involves a lot of preparation in skeleton arguments, is remunerated. ‘That end of it has seen a significant fee increase, but it is an interim measure… more work is being done in this area. Of course, we will engage closely with representative bodies’, he said.