The law societies of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland have unreservedly condemned the recent announcement by the Government of the People’s Republic of China of sanctions against British lawyers who provided legal advice on human-rights violations in the Xinjiang region of China.
In a statement this morning (13 May), the three law societies state: “The actions of the Chinese Government constitute an attack upon the rule of law and the independence of the legal profession, and should be rescinded immediately.”
‘Draconian government action’
On Monday 26 April, the Government of the People’s Republic of China placed Essex Court Chambers (which is based at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London) on a list of persons subject to international sanctions
The law societies’ statement says: “This draconian government action was in response to a legal opinion written by barristers at Essex Court Chambers concerning the treatment of the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.”
Four barristers had provided the legal opinion on 26 January 2021 for lay clients, who then proceeded to publish that opinion publicly. Several barristers, including senior QCs, have since moved chambers.
The statement from the law societies of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland echoes a similar call from the four professional bodies of barristers and advocates of Ireland and Britain, who recently issued their own joint statement of condemnation of the Chinese Government’s sanctions.
The joint bar associations’ statement said that the imposition of sanctions on lawyers for providing a legal opinion clearly contravened the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which says that “lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions”.
A statement issued by Essex Court Chambers on 26 March stated: “Each of these four individuals was providing independent legal advice in accordance with their professional obligations and qualifications as members of the Bar of England and Wales, subject to regulatory supervision by the Bar Standards Board. The legal opinion received significant publicity in international media following its publication last month. None of the four relevant members of chambers published the legal opinion”.
Essex Court Chambers says that it is not a law firm, has no collective or distinct legal identity of any kind, and add that: “Members of chambers are self-employed sole practitioners, each regulated in their own capacity as separate individuals by the Bar Standards Board. Members of Chambers are commonly retained by opposing sides in the same dispute, both in litigation and arbitration, with protocols in place to safeguard confidentiality.
"No other member of Essex Court Chambers was involved in, or responsible for, the advice and analysis contained in the legal opinion or its publication.”
Its website states that “members regularly appear before courts … either as registered advocates or by way of ad hoc admissions, before the Dubai International Financial Centre Court, in Hong Kong, and elsewhere.
“All members regularly appear, advise on and act in arbitrations and disputes around the world, including in Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East and Asia,” it says.
Essex Court Chambers was named ‘Chambers of the Year’ at The Lawyer Awards 2019, the Who’s Who Legal Awards 2019, and the British Legal Awards 2018.