When Beijing imposed sanctions on Essex Court Chambers, from where a group of prominent barristers practise, it was not only striking at the heart of the British legal establishment. It was also chalking up a victory in its battle to pressure international business to mute criticism of its domestic affairs, particularly its policy towards the Uyghurs of Xinjiang.
Lawyers say the sanctions could give China influence over who a firm chooses to assign to their international arbitrations. It could also make solicitors think twice about instructing Essex Court, which specialises in commercial and financial litigation, arbitration and public international law, for Asian work.
Analysts also warned it could lead to self-censorship in the UK legal industry, with firms and chambers wary of being associated with anyone who works for groups or individuals critical of China.
“That is what is so terrible — it has a chilling effect in relation to sets of chambers and law firms who will be very anxious about people speaking out in relation to China,” said Baroness Helena Kennedy, a prominent rights barrister on whom Beijing imposed sanctions at the same time as Essex Court.
China announced sanctions on a number of UK MPs, academics and individuals alongside Essex Court at the end of last month, accusing them of “gross interference” for their comments about Xinjiang, where more than 1m Uyghurs and other Muslims have been interned since 2017.
The move freezes China-based assets of those targeted, and bans those named and their family members from entering China, including Macau and Hong Kong, and from doing business with Chinese individuals or entities.
China has not specified whether all barristers at Essex Court will be affected, nor why the chambers was targeted. But four of the chambers’ barristers previously provided a legal opinion for non-profit clients implicating China in genocide in Xinjiang.
China denies it has conducted genocide and instead says it is providing “vocational education” in a region where it said it has faced terrorism threats.
Soon after the sanctions were announced, Essex Court removed a news item about the opinion from its website and released a statement which sought to distance the majority of its members from the advice. “No other member of Essex Court Chambers was involved in or responsible for the advice,” the chambers said.
Chinese state media welcomed the response. “Barristers in retreat on lies over Uygurs,” read one headline from the China Daily newspaper.
China is pressuring global businesses for boycotting cotton produced in Xinjiang because of rights concerns, including H&M and Nike. But few expected such tactics to be applied to the British legal establishment.
“It’s so overt it takes your breath away,” the head of an international law firm in Hong Kong said of the sanctions on Essex Court. “This is the long arm of a government interfering in another country.”
“Today, it is the members of Essex Court Chambers who are sanctioned,” Guy Sandhurst QC, a former chair of the Bar of England and Wales, wrote on the website of the Society of Conservative Lawyers. “But tomorrow it might be Clifford Chance, Freshfields or some other major city law firm or chambers of barristers which wittingly or otherwise offends the Chinese state.”
Alan Bates, a British barrister, said lawyers may be more wary now of providing legal assistance to organisations critical of China, and would be cognisant of harming their colleagues’ work with their words. “People might be willing to bear that cost to themselves [but] when the cost falls on the colleagues they might rethink that,” he said.
One barrister at a rival UK chambers said they had already been told not to speak publicly about the issue while Essex Court is deciding how to respond. “I deplore it,” he said. “I don’t think you deal with bullying by caving in.”
Few chambers have posted statements in support of the chambers. An individual inside Essex Court told the Financial Times they suspected other chambers did not want to “throw themselves into the firing line” but warned they might not be immune.
“Essex Court is the first set of chambers to be made subject to these sanctions . . . but it may well not be the last,” the person said.
Derek Sweeting, chair of the UK Bar Council, has described China’s move as “an attack on the rule of law”.
Before the sanctions, Essex Court had more than 90 barristers, including a Singapore branch, and 44 Queen’s Counsel. But within two days of the sanctions announcement, Jern-Fei Ng QC, an international arbitrator with experience in Asia, left the chambers and joined 7 Bedford Row. The move was seen as unusual because the chambers is not as well known for commercial arbitration as his former base.
Following this, Essex Court’s Singapore branch, which included Toby Landau QC and former Singapore attorney-general VK Rajah, disbanded entirely and said its members would apply to form a new chambers. Landau is also expected to leave the London chambers, according to a person familiar with the matter. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The barrister at the rival chambers said there was concern the sanctions would not only affect Hong Kong and Singapore arbitration work involving Chinese companies but also Caribbean legal work because the ultimate beneficial owners of some of the companies involved were Hong Kong businesspeople.
Matthew Gearing, the recently departed chair of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, was expected to join Essex Court Chambers, but told the Financial Times last week he was “monitoring the situation”.
There is already talk inside rival chambers of a poaching spree among the top sets. “This is a body blow to a very establishment set of chambers as a form of collective punishment,” one UK lawyer said.
“The problem for Essex Court is that they are so leveraged in the international market and a fair proportion of that work is Chinese,” a person at another chambers said. “They have been the market leaders of all the chambers in terms of building a practice in Asia, so the impact is potentially going to be big. The damage is done, the Singapore barristers have gone. There will be more casualties.”