Sanctions imposed on a barristers chambers could lead to ‘self censorship’ in UK legal profession
The Financial Times reported recently on the move by China to impose sanctions on a prominent barristers’ chambers, which lawyers say could lead to self censorship in the UK profession with a move that another lawyer said “took your breath away”.
LawFuel reported earlier on the move by China against the chambers, which the FT notes has ‘struck 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, the newspaper noted.
Lawyers say the sanctions could give China influence over who a firm chooses to assign to their international arbitrations and would also cause lawyers to think carefully before instructing Essex Court with work in their specialist areas of commercial and financial litigation.
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 civil rights barrister on whom Beijing imposed sanctions at the same time as Essex Court.
The sanctions imposed by China included not only lawyers, but also some UK parliamentarians and academics, accusing them of “gross interference” for their comments about Xinjiang, where more than 1m Uyghurs and other Muslims have been interned since 2017.
The action by Beijing freezes China-based assets of those who have been sanctioned 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, as we reported, have been involved in an action that implicates 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.”
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