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China 'throwing toys out the pram' by sanctioning individual barristers, says Bar of Ireland

Bar Council chair Maura McNally is concerned about the growing rate at which China has targeted individuals.

Senior Counsel, Maura McNally was elected chairperson of the body last July.
Senior Counsel, Maura McNally was elected chairperson of the body last July.
Image: The Bar of Ireland

THE COUNCIL OF the Bar of Ireland has condemned sanctions recently imposed by China on legal professionals and their families in the UK, accusing Chinese officials of “throwing their toys out of the pram”.

The Irish representative body for barristers has joined with Councils in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England and Wales to call on China to rescind the sanctions that they say contravene the UN’s basic principles on the role of lawyers.

Beijing placed the tit-for-tat sanctions on four British barristers last month following the publication of their legal opinion that China’s actions in Xinjiang offered a “credible case” of “crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide”.

Chairperson of the Bar of Ireland, Maura McNally SC, told TheJournal that China was interfering with access to justice and the rule of law by “intimidating and bullying” barristers with personal sanctions.

She said it was her opinion that the recent sanctions are comparable to China “throwing the toys out the pram, but doing so in a very volatile and aggressive fashion”.

“If you have lawyers going to court and they’re fettered or they’re in some way intimidated and prevented from giving the client full, fair and frank legal representation and advice, then you’re crippling the whole system,” said McNally.

“And if they’re being attacked, then every other practitioner is equally prone to such attack if they were to raise their head above the parapet and complain or criticise.”

The four barristers in question were members of the Essex Court Chambers, a London Based partnership of senior lawyers and barristers, which was also hit with sanctions. Similar chambers are generally made up of self-employed barristers who pool their resources for clerical work and office space.

The Irish and UK barrister body councils said the move to sanction the chamber was inconsistent with respect for the rule of law as it is not a law firm and has no collective or distinct legal identity of any kind. 

“The naming in the sanctions of a barristers’ chambers, which comprises some 95 other barristers who practise from the same premises but as independent legal practitioners, is a further indiscriminate attack on legal professionals,” the four councils said in a joint statement.

“We call on the PRC government to review these 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.”

Other national and international Bar associations are being called upon to join the condemnation of the sanctions as an “unjustifiable interference with the professional role of lawyers and an attack upon the rule of law internationally”.


McNally said the four councils recently held an online meeting during which the chairs decided to take a joint approach to the issue as “something had to be done”. 

“Governments who try to do this have to be called to task. Somebody has to do it,” said McNally SC. 

She said the sanction of lawyers and their families was an example of the Chinese government “spreading the circle of intimidation as wide as possible” and “hog tying people”.

Sanctions are regularly used as a tool of foreign policy by many governments around the globe, but McNally is concerned about the growing rate at which China has targeted individuals. 

“To specifically name, and identify private individuals, is to try and silence and literally trample on the voice of those who are trying to raise recognition of an issue that’s ongoing,” said McNally. 

Five British MPs were also among the individuals sanctioned by China last month for criticising its treatment of the Uighurs.

In response, MPs passed a non-binding motion in the House of Commons declaring that Uighur Muslims and other minorities are “suffering crimes against humanity and genocide” in Xinjiang.

China rejects all claims of human rights violations against the Uighurs, calling such claims the “lies of the century” based on “fabricated” evidence designed to “demonise” China. The European Union, Britain, Canada and the United States have sanctioned several members of Xinjiang’s political and economic hierarchy over the rights abuses in the region. 

And while sanctions may seem commonplace, news of March’s sanctions against individual barristers sent shockwaves through the legal community in Hong Kong because those sanctioned are banned from doing business in, or travelling to, the finance hub.

Hong Kong holds a unique legal status as, unlike China’s party-controlled courts, it boasts an internationally respected common law system that forms the bedrock of its business hub reputation. However,  the system is under threat since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law there that grants the mainland jurisdiction in some cases.

Top lawyers from common law jurisdictions, including Britain, operate in the city or are instructed by companies and individuals there.

Lawrence Collins, a former UK Supreme Court judge who currently sits on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal, joined the Essex chamber’s London offices in 2012 as an arbitrator.

Asked by AFP about repercussions from the sanctions for the chamber on Collins himself, government officials in London said the review was still continuing.

Chinese leaders have made clear they expect all those involved in running Hong Kong – including judges – to be “staunch patriots”. And the Hong Kong Bar Association has been repeatedly slammed by Chinese state media for voicing concerns over the rule of law.

As Ireland is the only English speaking common law system left in the EU, the country is moving towards becoming an international litigation and arbitration hub in the aftermath of Brexit. 

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However, with the sanctioning of legal professionals, the four councils are questioning China’s status and reputation as a reliable partner in international trade and commerce.

McNally says there is a risk as to how China “will flex its muscles” in future trade disputes that may take place in Ireland or have Irish arbitrators are mediators involved.

“China’s behaviour now does have a knock-on effect, ultimately”, she said. 

The Chinese Embassy in Ireland did not respond when asked to comment.

- Additional reporting from AFP

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Adam Daly

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