American and Asian bar associations have waded into a row about sanctions imposed by China against a London chambers, accusing the Chinese government of breaching its international commitments.

The American Bar Association (ABA) said retaliatory sanctions imposed on Essex Court Chambers in March ‘not only interfere with the ability of its more-than 90 members to perform their professional legal duties, but also threatens the activities of other lawyers in the international legal community around the world.’

The Chinese government imposed sanctions against the chambers after four members gave a legal opinion relating to issues arising from alleged human rights violations by the Chinese authorities against the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Province. Several barristers, including senior QCs, have since moved chambers, after they were prohibited from entering mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau and their property in China was frozen.

American bar association

ABA: Treatment of London chambers threatens the activities of lawyers around the world

Patricia Lee Refo, president of the ABA, also voiced concern about ‘the past and ongoing punitive actions taken against Chinese lawyers who advocate for politically sensitive clients and causes’.

‘The ABA is gravely concerned that rather than honour its international commitments, especially those arising from the UN-centred system, and its express commitment to the rule of law and protection of lawyers, China unilaterally acted in derogation of its commitments,’ Refo said in a letter to Wang Yi, China’s minister of foreign affairs.

She urged China to rescind the sanctions and ‘to perform their duties as provided for in the UN Basic Principles’.

The sentiment was echoed by a statement published by LAWASIA, a law association for Asia and Pacific, which warned that the sanctions contravene UN provisions and called on China to withdraw them.

‘Sanctioning the barristers’ chambers as a whole indiscriminately targets all legal professionals within those chambers. The chambers comprise other barristers practising from the same premises, as independent legal practitioners, and sanctioning them goes against the fundamental basis of the rule of law which requires access to competent and independent legal advice,’ it said.

In April, the Bar Councils of England and Wales, Northern Ireland, and Ireland, together with Scotland’s Faculty of Advocates, said China had launched an ‘indiscriminate attack’ on lawyers which was ‘inconsistent with respect for the rule of law’.