30 April 2021

London set urged tenants to exercise restraint over China-related social media posts, leaked email reveals

Flags of UK and China painted on cracked wall

36 Group warned of 'detrimental impact' given 'significant links' with Asia

Leading London set of chambers 36 Group urged its tenants to exercise the ‘greatest caution’ when commenting on social media about the sanctions imposed by China against Essex Court Chambers, it has emerged.

A leaked email sent on behalf of the set’s executive board – published today by news site Roll on Friday  – warns tenants of the potential impact of negative comments about China on Asia work being carried out by some of their colleagues.

It was circulated after China imposed sanctions on Essex Court in March in response to a legal opinion written by four of its tenants that said there was ‘a credible case´ acts carried out in Xinjiang ‘amounted to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide’.

The email urged ‘the greatest caution over engaging in any online commentary on the matter, or related topics’, adding: ‘Commentary or engagement from one person may have a detrimental impact on other individuals or practice areas within chambers. This is especially so, given the significant links with and streams of work from that part of the world, enjoyed by at least two of the teams in chambers.’

The set, which declined to comment, comprises various branded practice groups, including two that generate significant international business – 36 Commercial and 36 Stone – as well as 36 Public & Human Rights, which ‘actively supports charities and interest groups including Liberty and JUSTICE’.

Several clerks and barristers at leading commercial sets have told told The Global Legal Post that while their chambers have not issued similar guidance, they are being circumspect about commenting on the situation and its impact on Essex Court.

Gus Sellitto, managing director and co-founder of  PR consultants Byfield, which specialises in reputation management, said:“This is a difficult issue for chambers to navigate, as they are made up of independent barristers who will have differing and often strong opinions on the situation in China and how it should be dealt with.”

He said the issuing of social media guidelines “was following accepted business practice” but there was “a much bigger issue here for the legal profession, which is increasingly expected to have a voice and to take a position in line with [their] stated values on the big issues that society is grappling with, including human rights abuses”.

He warned: “Law firms, and barristers’ chambers, who risk being perceived to put profits before purpose, will need to consider carefully the long term impact this could have on their reputation and standing.”

Earlier this week, a joint statement from the four referral bars of the UK and Ireland strengthened calls for China to lift the sanctions against the set, saying it was an “indiscriminate attack on legal professionals.’

Separately, leading commercial barrister Ali Malek QC, of 3 Verulam Buildings, has added his voice in support of Essex Court. Malek, the treasurer of Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court where the 36 Group is located, was speaking at a virtual joint event between his Inn and the influential City of London Law Society, on the rule of law. 

“There ought to be no place for sanctions against barristers’ chambers or law firms. This is particularly the case where the barrister is simply presenting a client’s case as an advocate in the values of the bar,” he said, according to legal journalist Joshua Rozenberg’s blog, A Lawyer Writes.

“To target chambers as a whole undermines the principle that barristers practise as independent practitioners, each under their own name and with a corporate identity in only the loosest sense, sharing costs but not revenues.”

Malek said a decision on whether his Inn speak out against the sanctions would be taken by its executive “after due reflection on the potential implications for its members”.

On Monday, Matthew Gearing QC, Allen & Overy’s outgoing co-head of international arbitration and a former chair of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, announced he was joining leading London set Fountain Court having previously agreed to join Essex Court Chambers. Three QCs with international practices have departed from Essex Court since the sanctions were imposed, most recently Vernon Flynn QC.

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