Fee cuts of up to 30% will be the ‘kiss of death’ for the criminal bar, its new leader has told the justice secretary.

In a meeting with Chris Grayling following publication of the government’s second consultation on legal aid reforms, Nigel Lithman QC said that criminal barristers will accept ‘not a penny more’ of fee cuts.

Since 1997, Lithman said, criminal barristers have had their fees slashed by 30%, with a 13.5% reduction in the past three years.

In its second consultation published on 5 September, the Ministry of Justice confirmed plans to cut criminal legal aid fees by 17.5% in two stages. Barristers and solicitor-advocates who do the most serious cases, classified as very high cost cases (VHCCs), will be hit harder, with rates cut by 30%.

The changes are part of a wider reform package intended to save £220m from the annual £975m criminal legal aid budget.

Lithman said the cuts were ‘killing the profession’ whose morale has been ‘laid low’ after years of pay reductions. ‘No other public profession such as doctors, teachers, nurses have been cut year on year and no profession could sustain it.’

Lithman said the cuts would be the ‘kiss of the death’ for the criminal bar. He offered to help the ministry find alternative ways to cut costs, with the assistance of the ‘brightest and best’ barristers, but said the bar will not accept the fee cuts proposed or any other fee cuts.

In assessing the impact of the changes on VHCC fees, the ministry accepted the risk that providers may cut the time they spend on cases or stop doing them altogether, or that it would lead to more junior barristers taking on the most serious cases.

But the ministry said it believed that junior legal professionals would be of ‘sufficiently good quality’ to represent defendants ‘adequately’.

A spokesman, said: ’The small number of criminal very high cost cases take up a disproportionate amount of the legal aid budget and place too much of a burden on taxpayers. There have been several cases over recent years that cost more than £10 million in legal aid fees. In the current economic climate this cannot continue.

’Even after these reforms, we will still have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world. We want to ensure the limited money we have is concentrated on those cases and people who need it most.’