Scottish independence: Timeline on EU advice row

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The Scottish government has been embroiled in a row over whether it has legal advice on the European Union membership status of an independent Scotland.

The issue came to a head this week when Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that ministers had now officially sought legal advice.

Here is a timeline of events leading up to Ms Sturgeon's announcement.

May 2011

Labour MEP Catherine Stihler writes to the Scottish government asking it for any legal advice it received on the issue of an independent Scotland's status in the European Union.

On her website, Ms Stihler says: "It struck me that the government were so laid back about automatic EU entry that they must have the evidence to back up their assertions. However, they refused to answer my question on the grounds of 'public interest'."

August 2011

The Scottish government refuses to reveal whether information exists or is held by it on the issue of an independent Scotland's EU status, saying it is exempt. Ms Stilher responds to ministers and says finding out the information is in the public interest. She states that the people of Scotland deserve to know the full facts before a referendum on Scottish independence.

September 2011

Ministers review their initial decision after a request to do so from Catherine Stilher. They conclude that they will not be changing their minds on the matter and no further information is to be revealed.

October 2011

Catherine Stilher writes to the Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew saying she is not happy with the Scottish government's review. The commissioner allocates an investigation officer to the case.

July 2012

The Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew finds that ministers failed to deal with Catherine Stihler's request for information.

The officer says that if the information exists or is held, ministers had to either inform Ms Stihler or issue a refusal notice explaining why it judged the disclosure to be exempt.

She adds that if the information does not exist or is not held, ministers should notify Ms Stihler of that fact.

Ms Agnew says: "In the commissioner's view, the role of [the FoI Act] is important not only in ensuring transparency in information held by public authorities, but also in enabling transparency in information about process.

"In this case, the commissioner considers that it is in the public interest to know the type of information that the ministers were taking into account in developing policy in relation to such a significant issue as independence."

A spokesman for the Scottish government says it is "surprised" by the commissioner's decision.

He adds: "It is the longstanding and usual practice of the Scottish government to neither confirm or deny the existence or the content of legal advice.

"The approach we have taken on this issue is consistent with the UK government position in a similar case they dealt with under equivalent legislation. We therefore intend to appeal and contest the decision."

July 2012

The Scottish government appeals the request on whether it has legal advice or not at the Court of Session in Edinburgh. First Minister Alex Salmond insists that to reveal the information requested would be breaking the ministerial code.

The SNP leader adds that a detailed assessment of an independent Scotland in Europe would be made in the 2013 white paper on the referendum.

September 2012

A court hearing decides that the appeal case be heard at the Court of Session on the 18 and 19 December.

The matter is to be before three judges, with both parties lodging notes or argument and legal authorities in advance.

Lord Menzies says: "I shall approve this matter as suitable for urgent disposal."

October 23, 2012

Scotland's Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tells Holyrood that the Scottish government had not commissioned legal advice on what an independent Scotland's status would be in the EU. She goes on to tell the chamber that she is now commissioning advice on the matter from Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland.

Ms Sturgeon also reveals that the government has now dropped its court battle.

October 25, 2012

Independent investigators will look into whether the first minister breached the ministerial code in relation to the legal row. Alex Salmond tells MSPs at first minister's questions that he referred himself. Sir David Bell, the vice chancellor of Reading University and a former top civil servant in the UK government's education department, will lead the investigation.

October 30, 2012

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont uses a a debate in Holyrood to call for a judicial inquiry into Mr Salmond's conduct on the matter.

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