The Scottish Government has spent over £370,000 in legal fees defending its flagship minimum pricing of alcohol policy against challenges from the Scotch Whisky Association.

Ministers have had to hire top QCs and advocates in a bid to save the legislation after legal action by the SWA - a trade association whose members include Diageo, Highland Distillers and Chivas Brothers.

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of the Alcohol Focus Scotland charity, accused the SWA of "delaying tactics" that "cost lives".

Proposals to bring in a minimum price of alcohol of 50p per unit were passed by MSPs in 2012. Ministers believed the health measure would curb excessive drinking by targeting high-strength alcoholic drinks.

Under the plans, a cheap bottle of wine would rise to £4.69 and four-pack of 500ml lager would cost at least £4.

However, legal challenges by the SWA have delayed implementation of the legislation.

The SWA opposed the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act in the Court of Session, but this legal bid failed.

Its lawyers argued that the measure would create a precedent whereby health concerns were allowed to interfere with the free trade of goods and services.

Lord Doherty, who presided over the case, wrote: "The court ruled that the Acts of Union were not an impediment to the minimum pricing measures. The court also decided that the measures were not incompatible with EU law."

The SWA appealed and the case was eventually referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

In December, the ECJ declined to back minimum pricing but passed the case back to the Scottish courts.

According to figures released by the Scottish Government, Ministers have spent £276,725 on QC fees in relation to the SWA cases since 2012.

Advocates - junior counsel - have pocketed £78,690 and £14,703 was incurred in “miscellaneous” costs.

The biggest item of spending was £135,025 to QCs in 2012/13, which coincided with the initial legal challenge.

However, regardless of the outcome in the new Court of Session case, an appeal to the Supreme Court by either the SWA or the Scottish government is possible.

Alison Douglas, Chief Executive of the Alcohol Focus Scotland, said: “Minimum pricing should have been in place three years ago but the SWA took the Scottish Government to court to protect their members’ sizeable profits. These delaying tactics have not only cost lives but continue to defy the democratic will of the Scottish Government and cost thousands of pounds of public money. It is just not acceptable.”

David Frost, the SWA chief executive, said: “We have opposed minimum unit pricing (MUP) ever since it was proposed by the Scottish Government. The Government expected MUP to be subject to legal challenge, but pressed ahead anyway, leaving us with no alternative but to exercise our right to oppose it in the courts. We consistently asked the Scottish court to refer the case to Europe at an earlier stage to speed up the process and keep costs down, and I am sure we would all prefer the process not to have been so prolonged.

“Our view remains that MUP would be both illegal in breaking free trade rules – a view supported by the European Court ruling - and ineffective as it wouldn’t target harmful and hazardous drinkers.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We continue to believe that minimum alcohol pricing is the right approach for Scotland as part of a wider strategy to curb our alcohol intake. On-going legal costs are reflective of the case remaining active following the recent ECJ ruling.”