29 March 2021

Top Asia law QC leaves sanctions-hit Essex Court Chambers

Essex Court Chambers is located in Lincoln's Inn Fields

Jern-Fei Ng QC announces switch two days after former chambers appears on China sanctions list

A senior commercial barrister who is recognised for his Asia practice has announced his departure from Essex Court Chambers just two days after Beijing imposed sanctions on the set.

Jern-Fei Ng QC unveiled his move to 7 Bedford Row on Sunday, ending his 18-year tenure at Essex Court.

In a brief LinkedIn post, he said he would be joining 7 Bedford Row barristers’ chambers from Monday, when he would be continuing his practice from his ‘new professional home’.

He declined to comment on the reasons for the move and Essex Court was unavailable for comment. An official announcement is expected on Monday.

Ng became a silk in 2018 at the age of 38, making him one of the youngest QCs to be appointed in recent years.

He specialises in commercial arbitration, including investment treaty disputes, and has a broad commercial litigation practice that spans civil fraud, energy and commodities, international arbitration, shipping and indirect tax. The Malaysian national is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, Malay and Indonesian.

His new set is not seen as a direct competitor to Essex Court, although it is known for its international work.

Last Friday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs imposed sanctions on Essex Court alongside three other ‘entities’ and nine individuals it accused of spreading ‘lies and disinformation’ about the treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority group in Xinjiang.

The sanctions stipulate that ‘Chinese citizens and institutions are banned from doing business’ with affected ‘individuals and their families’.

The apparent reason for the set’s inclusion on the list was the writing of a legal opinion by four of its tenants last month. Commissioned by the Global Legal Action Network, the opinion said there was ‘a credible case’ that acts carried out by China in Xinjiang ‘amounted to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide’.

The chair of the Bar Council, Derek Sweeting QC, is a senior tenant at Ng’s new chambers. He spoke out strongly in Essex Court’s defence on Friday, as did the Law Society of England and Wales, the UK government and an array of senior barristers.

EU law specialist Alan Bates, of Monckton Chambers, said: “It is unacceptable for lawyers to be subjected to sanctions by China’s government for their legal advice and drawing attention to genocidal persecution of an ethnic minority group.”

He added: “What standing together looks like, in terms of work the English Bar should all refuse, needs to be worked out. Certainly no one should be taking cases for the Chinese or Hong Kong authorities in proceedings [that are] not in [the] UK courts.”

Serle Court’s Rupert Reed QC said: “I very much hope that the Chinese Government will re-consider these measures.”

On Friday, Essex Court issued a statement pointing out that the four members of chambers were providing independent legal advice, had not themselves published the opinion, and that ‘no other member of chambers was involved in or responsible for the advice and analysis contained in the legal opinion or its publication’.

It added: “Essex Court Chambers is not a law firm and has no collective or distinct legal identity of any kind. Members of chambers are self-employed sole practitioners each regulated in their own capacity as separate individuals by the Bar Standards Board.”

Alison Macdonald QC, who specialises in arbitration and public international law, as well as criminal and human rights law, was the lead author of the opinion on the Uighur Minority. She joined Essex Court from Matrix Chambers in January last year.

Essex Court has an annex in Singapore as well as Essex Court Chambers Duxton, a separate Singapore Group Practice, which practices Singaporean law in a chambers model and is led by former Singapore Attorney General VK Rajah SC. 

London-based tenants with strong Asia practices include Wei Jian Chan and Neil Hart.

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