UK and Ireland bar bodies slam China sanctions on magic circle barristers

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Members of Essex Court Chambers hit with penalties last month for allegedly spreading ‘lies and disinformation’ about treatment of Uighur Muslims

Bar bigwigs from across the UK and Ireland have come together to condemn the sanctions imposed by the Chinese government on barristers at a leading London chambers.

Last month Legal Cheek reported that Chinese officials had imposed a series of penalties on the members of Essex Court Chambers for allegedly spreading “lies and disinformation” about the treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province”.

This came after four barristers at the magic circle super-set penned a legal opinion which found there to be a “very credible case” that the Chinese government is carrying out the crime of genocide against the Uighur people in Xinjiang. China dismisses all claims of abuses in the region.

The four professional bodies — The Bar Council of England and Wales, The Bar Council of Ireland, The Bar Council of Northern Ireland and The Faculty of Advocates of Scotland — have now come out swinging, describing the sanctions as an “indiscriminate attack” and “inconsistent with respect for the rule of law”.

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In a joint statement issued this morning, the foursome said measures which target lawyers who are complying with their professional obligations, simply because their work attracts the disapproval of the Chinese government, are also a “threat to the global legal community”.

Those hit with sanctions, including their “immediate families”, are banned from entering China, including Hong Kong and Macau, while Chinese citizens and institutions are also prevented from doing business with them. Any assets they have in China will be frozen, too, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Other prominent lawyers named on the list, but who are not members of Essex Court Chambers, include human rights specialist Baroness Kennedy QC and Sir Geoffrey Nice QC.

The four bar bodies go on to note that imposition of sanctions on lawyers for providing a legal opinion clearly contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers which state (at para. 18) that “lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions”.

They group goes on to urge national and international bar associations to condemn the sanctions too.

In a separate statement, Bar Council chair Derek Sweeting QC, said:

“We must be robust and call out this attack for what it is: a threat to the work of lawyers globally and to the rule of law. Providing independent legal advice is the fundamental role of lawyers. There should be no place for the use of bullying and punitive measures by a state because it disagrees with a legal opinion.”

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China & Rule of Law; an oxymoron!



Well, China is going to care about that. Essex Court threw their public international team under the bus within hours of the announcement, and it seems to have done them no good at all. I am not interested in any calls for action of support given the way the Chambers itself responded.



This kind of behaviour from the Chinese government is precisely why the debate a while back about the cab rank rule applying to David Perry QC taking on the Chinese government’s brief to prosecute activists in Hong Kong is complete hogwash. The cab rank rule is about preserving the rule of law. From the Chinese government’s perspective, the rule of law doesn’t exist. To take the brief in that case while citing the cab rank rule would be both irony and hypocrisy in the extreme.



No-one was citing the cab rank rule. There is no cab rank rule for work outside of England and Wales. There is the “I take it on for the money and because I want to” rule.



Firstly the cab rank rule didn’t apply in that case. Secondly just because other people do not stick to the rules does not mean that we should abandon our adherence to the rules. Stop with the woke rage, if you are happy for the rule of law to be applied for the benefit of peadophiles and rapists then you should be happy for it to be applied for the benefit of despots.



From his recent posts, Barry is uber-basic and very much to the right. Shame he can’t spell “paedophiles”.



I bet Barry heard about Boris talking about letting thousands of bodies pile up and he laughed a little, muttered “that’s just Boris” and then went back to his Telegraph or Daily Mail.



Oh no.. someone has a different political outlook… how will you cope.



Attacking your opponent while failing to address any of their points… I am sure you will be a benefit to the high-street conveyancing scene.



Barry, you made a point? No-one thinks the cab rank rule applies and the rest was just trolling puff more suited to the average Dail Mail commenter. And your last sentence is not only hypocritical, expected of your sorts, but way way off the mark. Mediocrity is more common among those with your outlook.

Quick, This Bandwagon Will Make Us Look Cool!

I really don’t think members of Essex Court Chambers are sitting there crying in their Ferraris at the thought of not being able to visit the airport lounge in PEK.


Too quick

Lol actually crying is precisely what they are doing.

The work in Hong Kong is big dollar. Many also own properties in Hong Kong which would also be subject to sanctions.

The sanctions apply to any Chinese owned entity. That includes many offshore companies in the Caribbean that have Chinese owners.

This is will hurt the pocket of many barristers. So they are crying.


Inside observer

Not true. Essex Court Chambers is a leading commercial set with a market leading public international law team. The PIL team has done a lot of investor/state work and inter-state disputes historically but they have recently strengthened with Alison MacDonald QC (and others) in the human rights area. So the PIL offering has broadened. She came from Matrix, which is a human rights type set. There is real tension in chambers between the commercial barristers and the PIL team due to these human rights focused barristers. 3 QCs have since left, and the affiliated Singapore team have spun off into a new chambers. For an ambitious chambers, work from the Far East is very lucrative, and to be cut off from this is significant. Note also the influence of China in the region, so to be on a Chinese sanctions list has real business consequences in the whole far-east region. Further note that a lot of FDI in Africa is from China, so again the impact may be beyond China. There will still be work there for these top barristers, but for an ambitious chambers with plans for growth, this is quite significant, and I would not be surprised if more QCs and juniors leave before the end of the year. Who needs the headache for an issue that they probably privately don’t even care about (rightly or wrongly).

If this report was prepared by barristers in Matrix or Doughty Street, then it probably wouldn’t have been an issue. But chambers like Essex Court made their bones on commercial work and publicity that impacts on the bottom line is never welcome.



Do you think in future Essex Court may be forced to restructure as a purely PIL set or even a Human Rights set?


Old Guy

Not the OP but in response to your question, a big no. I don’t think people realise how little money the average human rights barrister makes and how much the average commercial barrister makes. Commercial junior of the calibre taken on by Essex Court/Fountain Court/20 Essex makes £200k-£400k at about 5 years call. The average human rights barrister (public law/criminal law), even if super smart, will be lucky to hit £50k earnings at the same stage.



How much do pure PIL practitioners earn? If you’re (in my opinion) lucky enough to work on big inter-state litigation cases at the ICJ? Also what are earnings like if you focus on Investment Arbitration?


How much do PIL practitioners roughly earn, if you work in areas such as inter-state litigation and investment arbitration? I imagine it’s more than human rights type work?

Old Guy

No such thing really as pure PIL practitioners basically. Either you’re a Professor at a top University and do some advisory and then contentious work; you work for the Foreign Office; or you do a mix of pure PIL and Investment Treaty (and commercial arbitration) stuff to pay the bills. I don’t know how much the first earns, at the FCDO you get £55k as a 6 year pqe in London, and the latter make a hell of a lot in law firms (look at Skadden, Three Crowns, Foley Hoag) and I would imagine even more at the bar but can’t say for sure. Do some research. The qualifications the top practitioners have a very (very) impressive.

PIL wannabe

@anon @ 4:19 and 4:26:

There are hardly any (as in, probably less than 10) ‘pure’ PIL people as far as I have seen, because of how specialised it is – surely it’s the most specialised part of the Bar by quite a way.

Most of the truly ‘pure’ PIL people are literally the leading international law professors, and until a few decades ago those guys were the only people arguing in the ICJ. Those practitioners who aren’t professors, and have in recent decades begun doing interstate arbitrations alongside professors, almost uniformly have PhDs or at least a top LLM plus publications.

I’m not sure if you’d count investment arbitration as “pure PIL” – it seems to be more like commercial arbitration with PIL laid on top. And as far as I’ve seen pretty much all the people who do it also do commercial arbitrations. There just doesn’t seem to be the volume of investment arbitrations around to the extent that someone could make a career out of just doing that (?). Perhaps someone here could confirm.

Point is: it’s so niche that unless someone that does it or one of their colleagues is on here then I doubt we’d have an accurate idea. I would quite like to know the details as well.
To anyone reading that’s in the know: How does the hourly rate for PIL work when instructed by foreign governments compare to commercial fees? I’m assuming commercial clients pay the same for investment arbitrations as they would for general commercial work.

anon PIL wannabe 2

To PIL wannabe, one thing I’m still trying to figure out is how to apply to chambers which have PIL practices. It seems like you have to be either be interested in either commercial law or human rights in order to gain pupillage at these sets. I don’t mind either but my main interest is PIL. Perhaps a PhD really is the best option?

Old Guy

@ anon PIL wannabe 2

There are no entry level PIL roles. You need to qualify as a lawyer, develop your career as a criminal barrister with human rights experience or a commercial barrister with investor-state work or state commercial work, or become an academic. In all situations you need to write/publish extensively in the field of PIL as a side to your career. Then maybe in your 30s you might get brought in by one of the PIL Bar (mainly white men btw with possibly a couple of women and all based in the US/Canada/Australia or Western Europe) to support on a case for a State. Alternative is to work for the government (FCDO or the Attorney Generals international law team), get to the top and then transfer to the bar at age 55.


Is Legal Cheek not following the news re some other London chambers response to China sanctions? Roll on Friday had an exclusive on it last Friday.



So the bar currently has its knickers in a twist about the Chinese government failing to respect the independence of the English bar, and as a secondary point, the Chinese government failing to respect the esoteric structure of the English bar and treat Essex Court as a collection of independent lawyers rather than sa law firm with a single identity.

The background to that is that China was credibly accused of genocide against its own people. Given that background, why does anyone expect that China would support the rule of law when it came to the right of a group of foreign lawyers to do Chinese work? It might well be wrong for China to sanction Essex Court, at least by reference to Western standards, but it is hardly their worst sin and certainly not out of character for the government under Xi Jinping.

If you want to do Chinese work and take their money, great, more power to you, hold your nose and crack on. But don’t expect to be treated fairly by the Chinese government when you’re doing it, and in particular don’t expect the Chinese government not to react badly when your colleagues accuse the Chinese government of genocide.


Inside observer

All very fair points. Some would argue though that working for Chinese companies and investors is different from the Chinese government (although we know the influence of the Chinese state is clear). They would argue that working for a Chinese company is no more morally reprehensible than acting for a US company whilst the US State was invading Iraq and keeping innocent people locked up in Guantanamo Bay. Representing a Chinese backed BVI fund doesn’t mean condoning the actions of China, but it does probably mean keep your mouth shut about the internal affairs of China.



I don’t personally think there is anything morally reprehensible about working for a Chinese company, without more (e.g. that company is involved in something morally reprehensible. Short of that, a bank is a bank, a shipping company is a shipping company, a factory is a factory, whether they’re based in Shanghai or New York).

The difference between working for a Chinese entity and a US entity is that in the latter scenario, the entity is under the umbrella of a state which does recognise the rule of law as a civic virtue. It is fair to expect the US government to behave fairly and reasonably, according to its own standards which include classical liberal principles like respecting the independence of lawyers. China doesn’t purport to be a country guided by liberal norms.



Elite chambers yes. Magic circle? These are chambers not firms.



There’s a bar magic circle too.

According to the bar magic circle.



China v Essex Court. In the red corner China. In the blue corner Essex Court. Essex Court loses to China by self knock out. Had no chance really. Took a dive for the Wong’s wonga!!!!! Who cares about human rights when money makes the world go around.



If truth be told , legal practitioners every where are mostly after money. The “breath of an unfeed lawyer” has not changed across the centuries !



I’d always thought the correct spelling was Uyghurs.


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