FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon has rewritten the Government's ethics rules by allowing Ministers to confirm whether they have taken legal advice on contentious issues.

The revision to the Ministerial code followed a damaging referendum row over the legal status of an independent Scotland's role in the European Union.

However, Tory MSP Murdo Fraser has accused the Government of "utter contempt" by pushing through the alterations without parliamentary scrutiny.

Sturgeon's predecessor, Alex Salmond, was dogged by a long-running saga over the legal advice behind his Government's claim that an independent Scotland would become an EU member.

He refused to say whether specific advice had been sought due to a curb in the Ministerial Code, which governs the behaviour expected of members of the Government.

The Code allowed Ministers to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of such advice.

However, Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew ordered the Government to answer the question, a ruling the SNP administration spent nearly £20,000 challenging.

In the end, the Government accepted the SIC judgement and told Parliament that no specific legal advice had been commissioned on the subject.

Sir David Bell, who was an independent adviser to the Government, recommended that the section on legal advice be revised.

The Sunday Herald can reveal that an updated version of the Code was published on the Government's website days ago.

Most of the 49 page document remains unchanged, but a new section on the "disclosure of the existence, source or content of legal advice" has been added.

Unlike before, Ministers may now "acknowledge publicly that they have received legal advice on a particular topic".

However, a block still remains on disclosing the content of legal advice, and who has provided it, such as the Lord Advocate or an external legal firm.

These details can only be revealed in "exceptional circumstances" and where the law officers have given their consent.

Sturgeon has also rewritten the rules on the procedures surrounding constituency visits by Ministers.

In 2013, Salmond was criticised for visiting Bramble Brae primary school in Aberdeen during a Holyrood by-election, without obtaining permission.

Valerie Watts, at that point the chief executive of Aberdeen Council, complained to the Scottish Government's top civil servant about the trip.

However, a spokesperson for the then First Minister said the visit followed an "impromptu invitation" and was a "totally private" event.

The new code states that notification of Ministerial visits should be "copied" to the chief executive of the relevant local authority.

The changes were made without input from MSPs, as the First Minister is responsible for the Government's ethical rulebook.

The First Minister can seek advice on whether a colleague has breached the code, but she is the ultimate judge in individual cases.

At a UK Government level, the Ministerial Code continues to place a ban on Ministers confirming or denying seeking legal advice from the law officers.

In 2003, Tony Blair's government came under fire for refusing to publish its legal advice on the invasion of Iraq.

Fraser said: "The SNP has constantly been changing the goalposts on legal advice to suit their own needs and this is completely unacceptable.

"It shows utter contempt for Parliament that MSPs were not even informed, never mind consulted, when the rules were changed again."

Willie Rennie, the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said:

"This SNP Government has been ingenious at finding ways to keep secret important information that should be in the public domain. That's why I believe this change must be subject to scrutiny by parliament rather than it being left in the hands of a few ministers."

A Scottish Government spokesman said:

"Revisions to the Scottish Ministerial Code are routinely made by First Ministers at the start of an administration or on their appointment to office. The Code has therefore been revised with minor changes following the appointment of the new First Minister.

"The amendments to the legal advice section take account of Sir David Bell's report in 2013. This simply clarifies the position in relation to legal advice, rather than changing it."