Two of London’s largest criminal legal aid firms have announced a merger to create a practice with over 100 fee-earners in advance of the government’s planned contracting changes.

SJ Law Criminal Defence Solicitors, based in Walthamstow and Mackesys Criminal Defence and Family Law Solicitors, which has five offices in south-east London, will form SJ Mackesys Solicitors.

The practice claims it will be the third-largest provider of criminal defence legal aid services in England and Wales and the second largest in London.

Figures published by the Ministry of Justice show that in 2012/13 both firms received just over £1.5m from criminal legal aid (for police station, magistrates’ and Crown court litigator fees).

SJ Law’s managing partner Vijesh Saujani (pictured), a former barrister, said the prime motivation for the merger was the new contracting arrangements that the government will seek to introduce next year together with further cuts to legal aid.

There will be a two-tier system with separate contracts for own client work and police station work. While any firm meeting the qualifying criteria will be able to get an own client contract, there will be a limited number of contracts for police station work.

The MoJ expects firms to merge or form consortia, but practitioners and the Law Society have warned there is insufficient time for many to do so before the tender ends in September.

Saujani told the Gazette : ‘Criminal solicitors perform an important role – they are one of the checks and balances against police malpractice, which is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society.’

With the planned changes, he said, the firm had to consider how it could continue to serve its clients in a way that enabled it to provide a ‘proper service’.

‘Some firms will struggle to be able to do things absolutely properly,' Saujani said, ‘But I was not prepared to carry on unless I felt we could do things properly.’

Saujani said there are little economies of scale to be made in criminal defence work. ‘We’re not producing widgets that can just build bigger factories and produce more widgets. We’re dealing with people.’