The First Minister’s legal background has come under renewed focus recently as a result of the probe into the handling of harassment complaints against her predecessor, Alex Salmond.
Mr Salmond successfully challenged the Scottish Government’s “unlawful” and “biased” investigation at a judicial review, with the debacle costing the taxpayer up to £1million.
The top QC and Labour peer, Lord Falconer, recently said Ms Sturgeon made a “profound mis-statement” about the legal advice she received, which urged her to concede the case at an earlier stage.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson asked at Holyrood: “Why did the First Minister think that she was a better lawyer than Roddy Dunlop QC and the advocate Christine O’Neill?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “I did not and I most definitely do not.”
The complaint against Ms Sturgeon was brought by a battered wife who turned to the newly-qualified solicitor for help after years of abuse at the hands of her husband.
Ms Sturgeon was working at Stirling law firm Bell & Craig when the client – now a grandmother in her 60s – first sought her help in July 1996.
Over the next 14 months, despite the woman being followed, threatened and physically attacked, it was claimed Ms Sturgeon did not seek a court order against her violent partner.
The client also alleged that Ms Sturgeon failed to send off her legal aid application – despite claiming that she had done so.
After Ms Sturgeon left the firm for a new job in Glasgow, the unsent application was discovered in the client’s file by her new solicitor, Cath Dowdalls, now a QC.
In stark contrast to Ms Sturgeon’s inaction, Ms Dowdalls immediately secured both legal aid and an interdict with power of arrest against the husband – ending his stalking and threats.
The client wrote to the Law Society in November 1997, saying: “I sincerely hope that you look into this case as I certainly would not wish Ms Sturgeon to ill advise further matrimonial cases which she is clearly not capable of dealing with.
“I feel as if I have been trailed through over a year of ill advice and wasted time.”
The following month, the client’s outstanding fees totalling £542 were waived by Bell & Craig as a “goodwill gesture”.
A year later, in December 1998, the Law Society sent the client a five-page report which stated that her complaint would be investigated in the professional misconduct category. The three individual allegations were failing to raise the interim interdict against the ex-husband, misleading the client about the legal aid application and failing to properly take her financial circumstances into account.
Ms Sturgeon was eventually cleared by the Law Society in April 1999, although the client no longer has the decision letter.
A Law Society spokeswoman said: “There was a complaint which was investigated but it was not upheld.”
The decision came just weeks before Ms Sturgeon gave up law and was elected as a list MSP in Glasgow for the SNP in the first Holyrood election.
Last night, the client said her decision to finally speak out after more than 20 years had been triggered by her outrage over the Salmond affair.
A Holyrood committee found that two female civil servants who complained about Mr Salmond had been badly let down by the Scottish Government.
It described the outcome of the judicial review as being “devastating” for the government, as well as being “wholly unsatisfactory for the two women who had made complaints”.
The client said: “It is an old story, but it is one that should be told.
“The way those women were let down was her responsibility and it was completely wrong.
“It goes back to my story; there was no responsibility taken. How can you sail through life like that and not admit any responsibility for when things go wrong?
“When she told me she was moving on to politics, an alarm bell rang and I immediately thought, ‘That’s why I’m getting nowhere’. She was focused on herself and her own career.
“To me, that’s what she is doing now as well. Where was her focus on the two women who complained about Alex Salmond?
“It is a case of history repeating itself.”
A spokesman for the First Minister said: “This complaint was not upheld by the Law Society.
“Now, more than 20 years later, the First Minister remains absolutely committed to tackling domestic abuse and ensuring that women can access the support they need.
“That commitment is demonstrated by Scottish Government’s support for organisations dealing with domestic abuse and violence against women.
“And by the passing of new legislation creating a specific offence of domestic violence, which includes measures to make psychological abuse and controlling, coercive behaviour a crime.”
COMMENT by Annie Wells, Scottish Conservative candidate for Glasgow
I admire and applaud this woman, indeed any woman, for having the strength to survive and thrive such a difficult ordeal. I also respect her right to finally speak out about this painful episode after all these years.
As a young mum suffering from domestic violence, she turned to a high street solicitor for help but seems to have been badly let down and therefore placed at prolonged risk.
That her lawyer happened to be Nicola Sturgeon, the future First Minister of Scotland, is fascinating in itself but also has some interesting parallels with recent events.
Sturgeon was clearly uncomfortable with people finding out about the messy ending to her legal career as seen by the comment she made in her biography.
That her biographer did not unearth what went on perhaps suggests some effort was made to keep a lid on it.
Given this happened when she was on the cusp of entering the Scottish Parliament as an MSP, perhaps that is unsurprising.
Even though the counts of professional misconduct Sturgeon faced were not upheld, her law firm waived what were relatively substantial fees in a letter titled ‘Complaint against Miss Sturgeon’.
The First Minister portrays herself as a champion of women, but this episode adds to a growing body of evidence that suggests otherwise.
There are striking similarities between how this client felt so badly let down by Sturgeon and how the two women at the centre of the Alex Salmond scandal feel.
We know that Sturgeon and her government badly failed these two civil servants who raised complaints of sexual harassment against Salmond.
They were used as pawns by Sturgeon’s government and then ‘dropped’. Their cases were referred to the Crown Office against their will.
In an act of gross betrayal, one of their names was leaked by a member of Sturgeon’s team to Salmond’s then chief of staff. Non-one has been held to account for any of it.
In the past weeks, we have also heard a shocking account from former SNP MSP Dorothy-Grace Elder who revealed that Sturgeon did not speak to her for three years after both entered parliament in 1999, withing weeks of the legal complaint concluding.
Perhaps more worryingly, Elder alleged she was threatened with discipline after one of ‘Nicola’s chums’ discovered she had raised concerns about male politicians bullying female colleagues.
Different times, perhaps. But little wonder Elder now questions Sturgeon’s claim to be a feminist.
Elder’s account also chimes with Holyrood’s Salmond Inquiry ruling that it was ‘hard to believe’ Sturgeon knew nothing about concerns over his behaviour before November 2017, as she claims.
The growing suspicion is that Sturgeons turned a blind eye to Salmond’s boorish and inappropriate behaviour during the many years when she needed his political patronage.
Sturgeon has a patchy and questionable record involving vulnerable women. The Salmond affair has served as a catalyst for dragging some of these secrets out into the open.
It all adds to the sense of malaise in Scottish politics. Sturgeon’s nationalist party is riven with internecine strife and her tired government is out of energy and ideas.
While her supporters will point out that her troubled legal past was a long time ago, let’s not forget what happened just weeks ago, after she gave evidence to the Salmond Inquiry.
Someone in the SNP, which is run by her husband, thought an appropriate response to her performance was to launch an online campaign bragging about how it had attracted many new members.
It was crass and ill-judged, and yet again paid no heed to the forgotten women at the heart of it all.