The Law Society is to consider the creation of specialist accreditation schemes for legal aid work in a defensive move designed to steal a march on the legal aid board.
At a council meeting last week, vice-president Phillip Sycamore urged the profession to look at setting up accreditation schemes for family, criminal, employment, housing and immigration practitioners.
"The message is that if we do not address this then the whole question of control of standards will be taken away from the profession," he said.
But although the council agreed to consider creating individual schemes for these areas of practice, members remain divided on the issue.
Council member Peter Watson-Lee said the Law Society was being premature and warned that accreditation schemes would exclude rural firms. "The Law Society is seen by rural practices as diverting clients away from small high-street practices. A lot of members are going to see this as an attack. We've got a lot of bitter people out there."
But family lawyers, who have been campaigning for an accreditation scheme for some time, hit back, saying that far from being premature, the motion was long overdue.
Family lawyer Eileen Pembridge said: "At best the fears of rural practitioners are misunderstood and at worst there's a tendency of 'if I can't have it I don't see why you should be allowed to have it either' and I think that's worrying."
Hilary Siddle, chair of the Law Society family law committee, pointed out that other groups were already trying to set up specialist accreditation systems. "I think it's the role of the society, not of commercial bodies, to determine the level and standards of accreditation."
The Law Society will consider introducing accreditation based on the level of reasonable competence.