York solicitors took to the street instead of the courthouse yesterday as they started a two-day strike against Government plans to cut legal aid.

Every firm that handles criminal law work in the city and Selby joined in the protest that saw defendants having to represent themselves at York Magistrates Court on a variety of charges.

They say that criminal law firms already operate on very thin profit margins and that the cuts will lead to many firms closing and legal aid work will be done by companies operating over large areas staffed by under-qualified lawyers subject to commercial pressures.

They say the proposals are already forcing experienced lawyers out of criminal law and that if the reforms go through there will be a two-tier justice system - one for those who can afford to pay lawyers, and one for those who have to represent themselves including at trials.

A York spokesman said: "We need to bring to the Ministry of Justice's attention just what it will be like when we are all gone. We know that this will cause inconvenience to our clients, courts, and police officers, but better that there are days of inconvenience now, than we lose the balance of the criminal justice system forever."

Throughout the action, the solicitors provided a duty solicitor at Fulford Road Police Station and at court to represent vulnerable individuals such as children and those with mental health problems.

The Government says the reforms are necessary because the national legal aid budget is far too high. Legal aid pays for representation for people charged with a wide range of offences carrying imprisonment, such as causing death by careless driving, allegations of fraud at work, and those accused of rape and other offences.

The action continues today.