A decision taken on Sunday by the party's National Executive Committee (NEC) will see the SNP challenge the legal restrictions around political parties promoting minority groups other than women, in a bid to increase their representation in the Scottish Parliament.
The party agreed a proposal that would see the top spots on the eight regional lists for the May election reserved for either a black and ethnic minority candidate or a disabled candidate.
However, the move appears to go against legal advice the party received from Jonathan Mitchell QC, which was later leaked, who said such a decision was legally “dubious” and would be open to challenge in the courts.
Mr Mitchell also raised concerns about the party’s plans to allow people to self-identify as BAME and disabled, though he said there was statutory guidance for the latter.
As a result, some SNP members criticised the decision, with some questioning why members on the NEC who might benefit from the change did not recuse themselves from the vote.
Ableist abuse was also directed at Fiona Robertson, who was representing the LGBT+ wing of the party at the meeting.
Alison Thewliss, the Glasgow Central MP and a member of the NEC, condemned the leak and said the decision had been taken to “break down historic barriers”.
She said the change was “a small mechanism which will reserve just one place on each regional list for a BAME or disabled candidate”.
Ms Thewliss added: “When the Equalities Act was drawn up, it didn't have the regional list in mind. It was based on Westminster FPTP [first past the post] selections.
“I see no reason why we as the SNP, as the biggest party in Scotland, should not try to test this and further the cause of underrepresented groups because if we don't, we miss an opportunity for new talent and new voices, people who are part of our country, with a lot to give. We miss this chance for a further five years.”
The meeting had also been expected to produce a definition of transphobia, which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pledged to eradicate after the issue threatened to see a mass exodus of young members, but that is believed to have been dropped from the agenda.
An SNP spokesperson said: “SNP conference passed a resolution to increase minority representation of our candidates – we remain steadfast to that. The Scottish Parliament needs to be far more reflective of the diversity of a modern Scotland if we are to truly become a fairer country.
“It is unclear how existing legislation relates to enabling this much needed diversity – now the NEC has made a decision that we are willing to test that legislation.
“The SNP leads the campaign for independence and so we must apply the same values of fairness and equality in our processes that we aim to see across all institutions in a future Scotland.”