Attorney general Dominic Grieve has spoken of his sympathy for lawyers affected by the legal aid cuts – but insisted the legal sector cannot be immune from austerity measures.

Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester today, Grieve expressed his concern that the cuts would increase the number of litigants in person.

But Grieve (pictured) said the cost to the taxpayer of legal aid could not be ignored – and ultimately that the numbers of barristers practising criminal law was too high.

‘The lord chancellor is between a rock and a hard place – he has to implement savings which are exceptionally challenging,’ said Grieve.

‘I have never been of the view you can exempt legal aid from that category. I am the first to recognise the bar and Law Society have a very difficult task and we have to look very carefully at the way it gives rise to an increase in litigants in person. But it’s not an area that can be left out the equation when it has grown so exponentially.’

On the size of the bar, Grieve said the problem arose because practitioners cannot simply be redeployed to another area of the business.

‘For self-employed people it is death by a thousand cuts and it’s an extremely painful process. The bar has to focus as a profession on the numbers required to fund the service. Even before these changes we had exceeded the amount and volume of work available. I am very confident about the long-term future of the bar, but the transition is exceptionally difficult.’

When pressed on why the legal profession should face cuts when it contributes so much to the UK economy, Grieve said he understood that view, but after three years as a government minister he had found that ‘everyone has a reasoned plan for why expenditure should not be cut from their own area’.

Grieve has been prominent in the national media as one of the few ministers prepared to promote the Human Rights Act – with justice secretary Chris Grayling among those who want it redesigned.

The attorney general reiterated his support for the existing legislation, saying there were ‘numerous examples’ of the way the Human Rights Act has helped people. ‘It has acted as a very powerful force for improving the ways administrators carry out their work,’ he added.

Angela Patrick, director of human rights policy for rule of law pressure group JUSTICE, called on the government to find examples where the European Convention on Human Rights had damaged the UK’s interests. ‘Which of the rights do we drop?’ asked Patrick. ‘Do we want to be in the same company as Belarus for human rights?’

Follow John Hyde’s live blog of the Conservative Party conference here.