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26 March 2021

China imposes sanctions on top barristers' chambers after legal opinion on Uighurs

Essex Court Chambers named among politicians and campaigners as Beijing retaliates following UK sanctions on Monday

By Ben Rigby

Uighur Muslim protest opposite Chinese Embassy back in 2019 Karl Nesh; Shutterstock

China has issued sanctions against the leading London commercial barristers’ set, Essex Court Chambers, accusing it of spreading “lies and disinformation” about the treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority group in Xinjiang.

The chambers, which has an annexe in Singapore, is one of four UK 'entities' named by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) today alongside nine individuals in retaliation to sanctions imposed by the UK government on Monday over human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority group.

Affected individuals and immediate family members are prohibited from entering China, including Hong Kong and Macau, while Chinese citizens and institutions are banned from doing business with them. Their property in China will also be frozen.

Last month members of Essex Court wrote a legal opinion commissioned by The Global Legal Action Network  which said there was “a credible case” that acts carried out by China in Xinjiang “amounted to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide”. The team was led by public international lawyer Alison McDonald QC and included juniors Jackie MacArthur, Naomi Hart and Lorraine Aboagye.

Rule of law

In a tweet condemning the sanctions, UK justice secretary Robert Buckland said: 'Chambers isn’t responsible for an opinion by one of its members; a lawyer shouldn’t be identified with the acts or views of the client, and the rule of law requires lawyers to be able to advise clients and give legal opinions without [foreign] governmental interference.'

The Bar Council tweeted: 'Sanctioning a chambers or any legal organisation because a member has given a legal opinion in accordance with their professional obligations is an attack on the rule of law.'

The nine individuals targeted include leading Conservative politicians as well as two barristers – IBA Human Rights Institute co-chair Baroness Kennedy QC, and international human rights barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, of Temple Garden Chambers.

Barrister Michael Polak, chair of Lawyers for Uyghur Rights, told The Global Legal Post: “It is disgraceful that China is targeting lawyers who have written opinions based on the available evidence which shows that crimes against humanity and genocide are taking place. This attack on the rule of law, which provides that lawyers should be able to act without fear, or retribution, is also likely to be counterproductive.” 

In its statement the MFA describes the UK’s sanctions as based on ‘nothing but lies and disinformation’ breaching international law and ‘grossly’ interfering with China's internal affairs. It adds: “China is firmly determined to safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests, and warns the UK side not to go further down the wrong path. Otherwise, China will resolutely make further reactions.’

Essex Court responds

Essex Court responded with a statement pointing out that the four members of chambers were providing independent legal advice, had not themselves published the opinion, and that ‘no other member of chambers was involved in or responsible for the advice and analysis contained in the legal opinion or its publication’.

It added: ‘Essex Court Chambers is not a law firm and has no collective or distinct legal identity of any kind. Members of chambers are self-employed sole practitioners each regulated in their own capacity as separate individuals by the Bar Standards Board.‘

The chambers recently announced that former Allen & Overy head of international arbitration Matthew Gearing QC was due to join. Gearing, former chair of Hong Kong’s International Arbitration Centre, also planned to join Hong Kong’s Temple Chambers. 

Several of the set’s members have acted in China-related disputes as counsel including fluent Mandarin speakers Jern-Fei Ng QC and Wei Jian Chan while fellow junior Neil Hart has extensive Chinese legal connections.

Separate from chambers, the set has an arbitrators’ practice at 24 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It also has an annex in Singapore, as well as Essex Court Chambers Duxton, a separate Singapore Group Practice, which practices Singaporean law in a chambers model, led by former Singapore Attorney General, VK Rajah SC. 

This article was updated at 4.30pm GMT with details of Essex Court Chambers' statement.

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