Barristers across the British Isles have condemned China’s ‘bullying and punitive measures’ against lawyers in the wake of a legal opinion concerning alleged human rights violations against the Uyghur population.

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’.

Last month, the Chinese government imposed sanctions against Essex Court 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.

Derek Sweeting QC, chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, 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.’

The professional bodies called on the Chinese government to review the sanctions, ‘which call into question its commitment to the rule of law, as well as its status and reputation as a reliable partner in international trade and commerce’.

‘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,' they said. 

‘We therefore call upon national and international bar associations to condemn the imposition of these sanctions as an unjustifiable interference with the professional role of lawyers and an attack upon the rule of law internationally.’

A spokesperson for the Law Society of England and Wales said: ‘The Law Society condemns any threat or sanctions against a chambers or individual lawyers fulfilling their professional obligations by representing clients and standing up for the rule of law. Singling out lawyers for doing their jobs undermines the rule of law and the independence of the legal profession.’

Former Allen & Overy arbitrator Matthew Gearing QC was due to join Essex Court Chambers next month. However, it was announced today that Gearing, who has been principally based in Hong Kong since 2008, will instead be joining Fountain Court Chambers.

Yesterday, foreign secretary Dominic Raab announced the UK’s first sanctions under a new global anti-corruption regime. The sanctions target 22 individuals allegedly involved in corruption cases in Russia, South Africa, South Sudan and throughout Latin America, and consist of asset freezes and travel bans.