Justice secretary Chris Grayling has sought to drive a wedge between solicitors and barristers over the drastic plans to cut criminal legal aid and restructure the market, the Gazette has learned.

At a meeting attended by circuit leaders and civil servants yesterday, Grayling said that he had tried to protect barristers in his plans for criminal legal aid reform - but threatened that if the bar did not co-operate, he would introduce price-competitive tendering (PCT) for Crown court work.

A note circulated by the South Eastern circuit following the meeting says that Grayling told those attending that he wants to maintain the independent bar and therefore did not include Crown court work in his plans to introduce PCT, or propose the introduction of one-case, one-fee.

The note reports that he said: ‘I have tried to protect the bar. I hope that the bar will not bite my hand off. I do not believe that these proposals will lead to the end of the independent bar. It is very important to maintain an independent bar. I will continue to give that message out.’

But he added: ‘If the bar does not co-operate I may introduce PCT in the Crown court.’

According to the note, Grayling said that much of the legal aid savings would fall on solicitors, but he said £44m will need to come from the Crown court advocacy budget. He is reported to have said the Ministry of Justice will consider any alternative strategy to save the money needed, including looking at alternatives to PCT.

The note records that Grayling said that, after the current round of cuts, he will not look to the bar for further savings.

Grayling told the meeting that abandoning client choice was designed to help new entities, such as the bar, enter the market place.

He said he is keen to see chambers bid for contracts, and pledged to ensure that solicitors who owe ‘a lot of money’ to barristers or who act in an ‘anti-competitive manner’, would be ineligible to bid for contracts. Proposals for paying the same fees for short trials and guilty pleas were designed to help junior barristers who do a higher proportion of guilty plea work, he said.

Grayling offered to meet the circuit leaders again before the end of the PCT consultation on 4 June.

The note records that, after Grayling left, the circuit's leaders called attention to the bar's ‘unprecedented’ opposition to the proposals - and that ‘unusually the anger has united the bar and the solicitors' profession’.

They said that the proposals would kill the independent criminal bar, threatening the rule of law. ‘If we are right and these proposals kill the criminal bar, the position can never be reversed,’ they said.

The note adds that once standards at the bar fall, the standard of the judiciary will drop as the bench relies on a strong legal profession to supply good judges.

Following the meeting, the note reports that the circuit leaders resolved to act in unison with criminal solicitors. To that end, the circuit leaders agreed to set up joint committees to liaise with solicitors and the Law Society, organise publicity and media engagement, and consider what actions the bar should take.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said it is 'nonsense' to suggest that ministers are seeking to drive a wedge between different sections of the legal profession.

She said the government is committed to protecting access to justice while reducing the cost of legal aid to the taxpayer. 'We are engaging with all parts of the legal sector as we deliver necessary changes to the current system. We welcome free and frank discussions while our consultation is underway,' she said.

Read the full note here.