A UK barristers’ chambers has sought to distance the majority of its members from a legal opinion written by four of its lawyers that implicated the Chinese government in “genocide” in Xinjiang after Beijing imposed sanctions on the group.
Essex Court Chambers removed a reference to the legal opinion from its website after it was included in sanctions on Friday that targeted UK politicians, lawyers and academics in retaliation for criticism of China’s mass internment campaign in Xinjiang.
The legal opinion provided by four of the London-based chambers’ barristers to non-profit organisations had said that there was a “credible case that acts carried out by the Chinese government against the Uyghur population in . . . Xinjiang . . . amount to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide”.
A statement from the chambers said: “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.” It did not respond to a request for comment on why the reference was removed.
Essex Court Chambers says it has more than “90 barristers and Singapore Members practising full-time as members”, including 44 Queen’s Counsel.
The situation underlines the increasingly difficult position for UK lawyers that are exposed to potentially lucrative arbitration work in China via Hong Kong’s legal system.
Ronny Tong, an adviser to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, said the Xinjiang legal opinion should never have been published on Essex Court Chambers’ website. “[The] fact that chambers put it on their website perhaps invites the retaliation in a way the chambers [did] not anticipate,” he told the Financial Times.
The sanctions imposed on Essex Court Chambers and others freeze their China-based assets, ban those named and their family members from entering China — including Macau and Hong Kong — and from doing business with Chinese individuals or entities.
It is unclear if the sanctions apply to individual barristers, but they cast uncertainty over the ability of Lord Lawrence Collins, who joined Essex Court Chambers as an arbitrator in 2012, to serve as a non-permanent judge for Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal.
Matthew Gearing, the recently departed chair of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, was expected to join Essex Court Chambers from law firm Allen & Overy in May.
In a statement to the Financial Times, Gearing said: “As things stand I have not yet joined Essex Court Chambers: I am still at Allen & Overy and I am monitoring the situation closely.”
The future of British judges serving in Hong Kong is already in doubt after UK government ministers raised concerns that this risked legitimising China’s crackdown in the territory following its imposition of a contentious national security law last year.
China’s inclusion of Essex Court Chambers in its sanctions has been labelled as an “attack on the rule of law” by the UK Bar Council.
“The sanctioning of an entire barristers’ chambers, who include specialist international law practitioners, is of significant concern, maladroit and self-defeating,” said Schona Jolly, chair of the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales Barristers.
Robert Buckland, the UK justice secretary, said chambers were not responsible for the legal opinions of their individual members. “The rule of law requires lawyers to be able to advise clients and give legal opinions without [foreign] governmental interference.”
Essex Court Chambers said in its statement that its members were self-employed and that a barristers’ chambers did not constitute a law firm.
Tong, the adviser to Hong Kong leader Lam, added that China needed to clarify whether Collins would be prevented from travelling to the former British colony. Were this to be the case, however, he said it would not “make any dent on normal workings of our judicial system”.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London