Born: June 4, 1954;

Died: April 6, 2020.

DEIRDRE MacNeill, who has died aged 65, was a lawyer who served as a sheriff in Glasgow and Edinburgh and was instrumental in establishing Scotland’s pioneering family courts. She also worked on the Piper Alpha inquiry and played a central role in setting up the Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association to help people starting out in their careers.

Most of her own career as a sheriff was spent in Glasgow, where she served from 1999 until 2009. Many of the lawyers who appeared in front of her – and quite a few of their clients – appreciated her listening skills and her sense of humour and believed she really was trying to do her best for the people in court.

Much of her work as a lawyer was driven by social concern. She worked on the first surrogacy case in Scotland and on the E.coli inquiry in 1996-1997, and after the Piper Alpha inquiry, she worked on the compensation scheme for survivors as well as the relatives of those who had lost their lives.

Families also appreciated the value of the dedicated family courts which Sheriff MacNeill established and ran in Edinburgh.

First set up in Glasgow in 1999, the aim of the courts was make the system less adversarial and the procedure more informal to make the experience easier for families. Everyone involved also aims to resolve the case by negotiation and discussion and, where possible, the hearings will always be taken by the same sheriff to avoid disruption.

Deirdre MacNeill grew up mostly in Aberdeen, where her father, Torquil, was regional procurator fiscal for Grampian, Highland and Islands, and her mother, Morag, was a medical social worker arranging adoptions. When she was only two years old, Deirdre was diagnosed with cancer and had a kidney removed. Happily, she recovered although it would later cause some health problems when she was pregnant.

After St Margaret’s School for Girls in Aberdeen, she went to Aberdeen University to study law, where she was one of only a few women in her year. She served her apprenticeship with Ketchen and Stevens in Edinburgh and later worked at Kilgour, McNeill and Syme in Charlotte Square, and supplemented the meagre pay by working as a receptionist at the Roxburghe Hotel.

She helped set up the young lawyers’ association in 1974. In 1980, she fulfilled a long-held ambition when she trained as an advocate and devilled to advocates Alastair MacGregor and Jim (now Lord) McGhie.

At the same time, she would also face one of the toughest challenges in her life when her daughter Sarah, who was born in July 1980, survived for just four weeks. A son, Jamie, was born two years later.

At work, she developed her skills as an advocate on a number of prominent cases, including Piper Alpha, and was appointed a QC in 1994. During the 1990s she was also appointed an ad hoc advocate depute and temporary sheriff, becoming full-time in 1999.

Famously, during her time as a sheriff in Glasgow, she made headlines when she used a colourful word from the bench. Looking at the notes on the case, Sheriff MacNeill said to the accused: “I note from your police interview that you said ‘I’ve been an ********’. I can only agree.”

She later said that as soon as she made the comment, she could see the court reporter’s eyes light up.

Sheriff MacNeill was popular with the staff in Glasgow, including fellow sheriffs, clerks, bar officers and cleaners, and from time to time she would rent a flat in the city in order to cut down on her commute. She and a number of friends regularly enjoyed nights out in the Merchant City and the west end.

One final career change came in 2009 when she moved her work as a sheriff from Glasgow to Edinburgh, where she set up and ran the family court. It was enjoyable work but she did miss her time in Glasgow.

Her health issues also began to affect her life and work and, after a number of years in Edinburgh, she took early retirement.

Her brother Calum, who is also a QC, said his sister’s successful career was highly influential in deciding his own path in life. He said: “She was an inspiration to me as, ten years ahead of me, she did law at Aberdeen University, moved to Edinburgh for her apprenticeship, called to the bar, joined what was then the Westwater Stable, and became a QC. In all of these steps I followed her and I have no doubt my path was made much easier by the goodwill engendered by her having preceded me.”

The Scottish Young Lawyers’ Association also paid tribute, describing her as an intelligent advocate and committed sheriff. “Deirdre really cared about the junior members of the profession and was always willing to help us in our endeavours.”

Away from her work, she was a serious reader of fiction, especially historical fiction, and had been known to indulge in skiing and golf (mostly for the shopping). She also enjoyed being a mother-in-law to Cat and grandmother to Heidi and Eva.

In later years, her health meant she had to have regular dialysis, although this did not stop her going on holiday to Croatia last autumn.

She married fellow lawyer, Hew Dalrymple, in 1977. They divorced in 2003. She is survived by her 90-year-old mother Morag, her son Jamie, her two grandchildren and her brother Calum. Her Ruari, her other brother, who was also a lawyer, pre-deceased her in 2016.