Alex Salmond has been ordered to reveal if he has received legal advice on whether an independent Scotland could join the European Union.
Scotland’s Information Commissioner ruled that Scottish ministers were wrong to impose the equivalent of a super-injunction by refusing to say whether they had such advice.
In a detailed judgment, Rosemary Agnew said the Scottish Government had broken Freedom of Information (FoI) laws and gave it six weeks to confirm or deny the existence of the material.
The move is an embarrassment for Mr Salmond and SNP ministers who have argued it is “not in the public interest” to say what their legal advice was, or even if they have had any.
The SNP claims an independent Scotland would have automatic membership of the EU — and the UK’s opt-out from the single currency — because both Scotland and the rest of the UK would count as “successor states” and therefore entitled to membership.
But others, including some constitutional experts, say only the remaining part of the UK would be treated as the successor state and an independent Scotland would have to re-apply.
Automatic EU membership has been one of the SNP’s key arguments in seeking to assure Scots that independence would not lead to major upheaval.
The Information Commissioner’s ruling comes more than a year after Labour MEP Catherine Stihler first asked ministers for a copy of their legal advice regarding the status of Scotland within the EU in the event of separation.
The government rejected her FoI request, and her subsequent appeal. External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop wrote to Ms Stihler saying: “We consider that to reveal whether or not the information you have requested exists, or is held by the Scottish government, would be contrary to the public interest.”
The Information Commissioner’s ruling said if legal advice did exist, ministers must either provide the information to Ms Stihler or explain why it is judged to be exempt from disclosure. If it did not exist, they should notify Ms Stihler that they do not hold the information.
The government said it was considering the judgment.
Ms Stihler said: “This is a landmark judgment, and I am absolutely delighted. People have a right to know whether an independent Scotland would be part of the EU and on what terms, but the SNP want to keep it secret. The pressure on the SNP to release this advice is now overwhelming. They should just be straight with us: tell us whether the advice exists, and if it does, release it now.”