OVER three centuries after it was founded, the Royal Faculty of Procurators in Glasgow has appointed its first female dean.

But far from focusing on improving diversity in the profession, Nicola Irvine, a partner at high street firm Russells Gibson McCaffrey, said she has bigger fish to fry during her two-year term in the role.

Noting that she is “honoured to be the first female dean”, Ms Irvine said that “diversity is not really a concern” for the faculty’s members, which include large commercial firms as well as smaller high street and criminal practices.

Instead, she will focus her efforts on issues that are having a more immediate impact on the profession, with the provision of legal aid being chief among them.

This is an issue that Ms Irvine said interests all the faculty’s members - even the larger firms that tend not to do legal aid work – because “the availability of public funding is a very important issue”.

On the one hand the profession is concerned that cuts to the legal aid budget are making it ever harder for those who do only legal aid work to make ends meet. On the other, there are worries about what this means for access to justice for the population at large.

“The rate of payment has not increased for solicitors over many years and as a result some firms have chosen not to offer legal aid,” Ms Irvine said.

“When it was first introduced the legal aid rate was about 90 per cent of the private rate that solicitors charged. Now, on an hourly basis it’s about a quarter.

“There’s a diminishing pool [of legal aid solicitors] so clients are restricted because they don’t have the choice of solicitors that they once did.”

Ms Irvine has witnessed the impact of changes to legal aid first hand, with her own firm regularly seeing clients that “simply can’t afford to run a litigation”.

“If a client comes in to me with a claim for £10,000 – that’s a lot of money – if they are eligible for legal aid they might have to make a contribution of £3,000,” she said.

“Even if they are eventually successful they may have to pay something towards it with no guarantee that they will get an award of expenses against the other side.

“There’s a lot of practical advice I have to give that they may not be better off at the end of the day.”

The toll this is taking on colleagues across the profession is also clear within her own firm, with two Russells Gibson McCaffrey partners among the diminishing band of lawyers that focus solely on criminal litigation work.

“They often work until 10pm because they are in court from 10am to 4pm, then they have appointments, then they see clients who are in custody. That does take its toll,” she said.

“The number of hours you have to put in if you do only legal aid work compared to private work is incredible. You have to put in long hours – and those are antisocial hours. You get calls at weekends and in the middle of the night. That’s something that we take on the chin. You have to roll with the punches and expect that’s going to happen.”

While she accepts that “there’s a finite amount of resources” to be spent on legal aid, meaning “the money does have to be managed well”, Ms Irvine said “it does have to be realised that there’s a very important job to be done representing clients in what can be the most important event in their lives”.

“The profession does take a pride in providing that service even though it’s not well remunerated for it,” she added. “We have a professional responsibility to make sure that people are represented well.”

These are tricky issues to balance, with no quick fixes on the horizon. Although the Scottish Government launched a legal aid review in February designed to ensure “that there is a flexible and progressive system that is sustainable and cost effective”, as it is expected to take a year in total to complete it will be some months before the review’s findings are made public.

That said, Ms Irvine is confident that the views of the faculty will be taken into consideration when the Government does finally report, just as they were when former Lord President Lord Gill conducted a review of the civil courts several years ago.

“He came to speak with the faculty about the thinking behind the review and our membership really felt as if they were involved in that process,” Ms Irvine said.

“That’s important for the development of the law, that there is input from those that are actually doing the job.”