Volunteers will not be able to fill the gap in advice and representation left by April’s legal aid cuts, the chief executive of one of the largest pro bono organisations has warned parliament.

With less than 50 days to go until the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act implements the deepest cuts to legal aid since the scheme began, Karen Mackay (pictured), chief executive of the Free Representation Unit (FRU), warned that thousands of prospective litigants will be unable to find help.

She said that 484 FRU volunteers represented parties in 967 employment and social security cases last year, with running costs of almost £500,000.

But she told a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid last week that pro bono agencies can deal only with cases referred to them and cannot cope with walk-in clients.

Margie Butler, chief executive of London’s Mary Ward Legal Centre, echoed these concerns. She told the meeting that the centre will lose more than 1,600 of its 1,700 housing, employment, welfare benefits and debt matter starts, cutting 60% of legal aid income.

‘There’s a lot of talk about pro bono and volunteers, but it must be understood that volunteers cannot replace the services provided for casework and specialist advice,’ she said.

The Centre for Human Rights in Practice at the University of Warwick is conducting a survey on the impact of the cuts on the civil legal advice sector, looking in particular at the effect on the retention of skilled staff.

The survey runs until 3 March. Results will inform a report on the cuts being led by Lord Low of Dalston.