THE LAW Society plans a swift response to the Lord Chancellor's new two-tier legal aid policy to allow firms time to apply for franchises if the society concedes defeat over the issue.

A crucial decision on the Law Society's tactics in next year's legal aid pay round with the Lord Chancellor's Department is likely to take place as early as July.

Head of professional policy Russell Wallman says: “We have to decide whether to stick to the present policy or whether to accept the Lord Chancellor's determination to have different rates.”

He says local Law Societies and special interest groups will be consulted in the run-up to a council vote to be taken on the best way forward. Wallman says he hopes the vote will take place in July.

The society has three options: to push for a reversal of the current two-tier criminal legal aid policy; to attempt a uniform rise which would maintain the current differentials as they are; or to negotiate on the basis the differentials will increase further.

Wallman says: “If we do change the policy, people doing legal aid work who don't hold a franchise must expect to have proper notice so they can apply for franchises if they want to do so.

“We've got to make a decision, somebody will be upset whatever we decide.”

Lyn Devonald, chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, says there is a danger that franchised firms may be tempted to break away from the Law Society, a move he believes would surrender them to the control of the Legal Aid Board.

He says: “The next few months are very important. Unless the Law Society can continue to ride two horses and find common ground between the two groups there is a risk franchised firms will go it alone.”