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Attys Filling Need For Legal Assistance To Ukrainian Refugees

2022-03-21

KYIV — March 21, 2022. Resource Law360 Pulse published an article on willingness of lawyers from around the world to provide legal assistance to refugees from Ukraine, and on how Ukrainian and international legal organizations take on projects such as fundraising, advocacy and proper documentation of war crimes.

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Attorneys in the United States and Europe have stepped up to provide information and help to Ukrainian refugees and asylum-seekers and to take on projects such as fundraising, advocacy and proper documentation of war crimes.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, many lawyers have stepped up as individuals and legal organizations have taken up the challenge, with the effort with perhaps the widest reach being a new task force through the New York State Bar Association, which has coordinated work by attorneys on both sides of the Atlantic, including in Ukraine.

"[People] came together and rolled up their sleeves," said Edward Lenci of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, head of the NYSBA's international section.

Some of the most pressing legal needs at the moment are those of refugees. Since the invasion, about 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country of 44 million, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

An estimated 1.8 million have gone to Poland, and large numbers have also crossed into Romania, Moldova and other nearby countries. The U.N. also said that many refugees have likely moved to other countries within the European Union after entering the EU's Schengen Area, which allows for international travel with minimal border controls. The Schengen countries bordering Ukraine are Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.

Some countries have already taken legal steps to address the crisis; for instance, the U.S. granted temporary protected status to Ukrainian nationals currently in the U.S. Poland on Tuesday passed a law to give Ukrainian refugees special legal status, allowing them to stay and work in the country and access health care and education benefits, which Polish attorney Anna Dąbrowska told Law360 Pulse will help ease the volume of legal needs.

However, the needs of refugees in Poland and elsewhere are unlikely to evaporate anytime soon, so some attorneys have stepped up as individuals to help.

Aleksey Shtivelman, a partner at Shutts & Bowen LLP in Miami who was born in the Ukrainian city of Odesa and is a native Russian speaker, said he started getting calls after the invasion because of his contacts in the region and the fact that he speaks a relevant language. Though he does not practice immigration law, as an immigrant himself he has been doing whatever he can to direct people to the right resources as requests pour in.

"People are saying, 'My grandmother is in Ukraine; is there an application I can file to bring her here?'" he said. "Personally, I think if we can't send troops, the least we can do is open our doors for people."

The Ukrainian American Bar Association, which has 200 to 300 members according to association treasurer Peter Piddoubny, has seen a wave of attorneys asking how to help. The association has added a resource page to its website, and Piddoubny, a partner at Piddoubny & Pelekh PC in New York, has been working to match pro bono volunteers with requests for assistance.

Requests have been as diverse as individual refugees with immigration questions, Ukrainian Americans looking to bring relatives to the U.S., and an American charity running an orphanage in Eastern Ukraine, he said.

Matching volunteers to those needing them has been a challenge, Piddoubny said, but the New York Bar's Ukraine task force is helping develop intake forms to streamline the process.

The task force, which was formed in February, has also worked with groups in Ukraine and neighboring countries to disseminate information to refugees.

Dąbrowska, a transactional attorney and partner at Wardyński & Partners in Warsaw and co-chair of the Poland chapter of the NYSBA, said her firm has been keeping current on the latest policies on refugees entering Poland. Sharing that information with people at the Ukrainian Bar Association, which is also working with the NYSBA task force, has helped it to reach people fleeing.

Ivan Horodyskyy, a lawyer at Dexis Partners in Lviv, Ukraine, who is part of the Ukraine Bar management committee, said information from NYSBA members has been helpful. "I'm not leaving, and [people] are asking me ... where they need to go, and I have answers," he said. "It gives us the opportunity to respond to the needs of millions of people."

The task force was initially intended to help Ukraine's judiciary and legal community as the country planned to become more integrated into Europe and potentially join NATO, according to Lenci. The association had just formed a chapter in Ukraine in December with that same goal in mind.

But the invasion began just a few hours before its first meeting, and the task force immediately turned to dealing with the new situation. In addition to its work on immigration-related needs, the task force has also focused on fundraising and documentation of events.

Ukrainian Bar Association CEO Inna Liniova said that the UBA is working to simultaneously provide legal advice to individuals and collect evidence. It has set up a hot line staffed with 200 attorney volunteers.

"We plan to go in parallel," she said. "While providing legal assistance to the people of Ukraine, we also plan to use these people and information they provide to gather information and evidence. People who call us and consult are either victims or witnesses of various crimes."

However, there are still big challenges, Liniova said, including the fact that many members of the team are in war zones, the lack of a central digital repository for the evidence and the need to ensure evidence will be admissible in potential future tribunals.

"We are streamlining the data collection," she said. "We need proper processing and especially verification of information, because we're talking about very technical evidence: pictures, videos, audio recordings. This evidence can be changed; there is Photoshop; there are sophisticated tools for changing videos. So we need a very solid procedure."

The association is also working on ways Ukrainians can document property damage, especially as residential areas continue to be bombarded.

The task force has also taken advantage of the NYSBA's many international connections and international chapters to advocate for more legal associations around the world to come out in opposition to the invasion.

Lenci said that he hopes lawyers will continue to act and to speak out in the face of the war.

"In unity there's strength," he said.

By Emma Cueto

Editing by Brian Baresch