The bodies representing barristers in the UK and Ireland have joined forces to condemn the sanctions announced by China against Essex Court Chambers.
However, the Bar Council of England and Wales has declined to go as far as one of its former chairs, Guy Mansfield QC, in saying nobody should take on work transferred away from the set.
The statement was issued a month after Essex Court Chambers, as well as Baroness Helena Kennedy QC and Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, were among nine individuals and four organisations that China said “maliciously spread lies and disinformation” about “the so-called human rights issues in Xinjiang” –the treatment of the Uyghurs.
The barristers and their immediate family members are prohibited from entering mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao, their property in China will be frozen, and Chinese citizens and institutions will be prohibited from doing business with them.
It came after four Essex Court barristers – instructed by the Global Legal Action Network, the World Uyghur Congress and the Uyghur Human Rights Project – authored a legal opinion finding “a credible case” that acts carried out by the Chinese government against the Uyghur population amounted to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide.
The joint statement came from the Bar Council of England and Wales, the Faculty of Advocates in Scotland, the Bar Council of Northern Ireland and the Bar of Ireland.
It said the imposition of sanctions on lawyers for providing a legal opinion “clearly contravenes” the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which state that “lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions”.
The statement went on: “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. It is inconsistent with respect for the rule of law.
“The Chinese state, as well as Chinese citizens and their businesses, benefit as much as anyone from a functioning international legal order.
“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 Bars added that measures which targeted lawyers complying with their professional obligations, simply because their work attracted the disapproval of the Chinese government, were also a threat to the global legal community.
“We therefore call upon national and international Bar associations to condemn the imposition of these sanctions as an unjustifiable interference with the professional role of lawyers and an attack upon the rule of law internationally.”
Mr Mansfield, who is now Lord Sandhurst QC, said earlier this month: “Essex Court Chambers cannot be left isolated. It would be intolerable if other chambers or law firms simply took over work which is transferred away from Essex Court. Urgent thought must be given to special codes of conduct to prevent that.”
However, asked by Legal Futures whether it had a view on this, a Bar Council spokeswoman said it did not.
Separately, Paul Harris SC, chair of the Hong Kong Bar Association, made a statement at the meeting of the Bar Council on Saturday which he said was restricted by the recent national security laws passed by China.
He told members that 95-99% of the Hong Kong legal system was operating as well as it has ever has and was still the best chance of a fair trial in Asia.
He said the presence of judges from the UK, Australia and Canada in the higher courts was key to this, and that it would be “utterly damaging” if those judges no longer sat.