UK and Ireland bar associations team up to condemn China's sanctions on Essex Court Chambers

Quartet of representative bodies speak out against 'indiscriminate attack on legal professionals'

Ethnic Uighurs are seen during a protest against China near the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey By Huseyin Aldemir; Shutterstock

The four bar associations of the UK and Ireland have issued a joint statement condemning sanctions imposed by China on Essex Court Chambers as an ‘indiscriminate attack on legal professionals’.

Calling on China to review the sanctions, the four representative bodies have urged other bar associations to speak out against the unprecedented measure, which they said was a threat to global lawyers and the rule of law.

The sanctions were imposed on the top London commercial set of chambers in March in response to a legal opinion written by four of its tenants that said there was ‘a credible case´ acts carried out in Xinjiang ‘amounted to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide’. 

In their statement, the four bar associations maintain the sanctions contravene the UN Principles on the Role of Lawyers which state ‘lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions’.

They add: ‘The naming in the sanctions of a barristers’ chambers, which comprises some 95 other barristers who practise from the same premises but as independent legal practitioners, is a further indiscriminate attack on legal professionals.’

The statement goes on to point out that ‘the Chinese state, as well as Chinese citizens and their businesses, benefit as much as anyone from a functioning international legal order’.

It adds: ‘We call on the PRC government to review these sanctions, which call into question its commitment to the rule of law, as well as its status and reputation as a reliable partner in international trade and commerce.’ 

The statement follows fierce criticism of the sanctions by the International Bar Association in the immediate aftermath of unveiling of the sanctions. “When the rule of law and human rights are under threat in any part of the world each one of us has the duty to speak out,” IBA president Sternford Moyo said. “Sanctions have been imposed by China on those who have done just that.”

Meanwhile, last weekend, Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA) chair Paul Harris SC spoke remotely to a meeting of the Bar Council, when he acknowledged the constraints imposed by China’s national security law on his contribution. 

Attendees said he supported the continued presence of Commonwealth judges in Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal – including current and former members of the UK Supreme Court – saying it was vital to the rule of law and it would be “utterly damaging” if they withdrew. It is anticipated the the security law will in due course come under the scrutiny of Hong Kong’s most senior court.

Harris has been coming under pressure in Hong Kong, where Beijing’s liaison office criticised his role defending media mogul Jimmy Lai, who was convicted of offences in relation to 2019 Hong Kong protests, dubbing him ‘an anti-China politician’.

According to a report by Citizen News’ Alvin Lum, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has said she does not see a case for government intervention into the HKBA, however, she has warned that “if there are instances or complaints about the Bar not acting in accordance with Hong Kong law, then the government will be called into action”.

On Monday, Matthew Gearing QC, Allen & Overy’s outgoing co-head of international arbitration and a former chair of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, announced he was joining leading London set Fountain Court having previously agreed to join Essex Court Chambers. Three QCs with international practices have departed from Essex Court since the sanctions were imposed, most recently Vernon Flynn QC.

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