In word and in deed, bar associations in Europe are joining the resistance to the invasion of Ukraine—condemning the Russian government’s actions and offering donations, coordination, and practical advice to support the Ukrainian people and the country’s lawyers.
But like their law-firm members, the bar associations are also steering a course through a complicated landscape: strongly rejecting any violation of international law, but mindful that lawyers have ethical obligations to Russia-related clients who came to them in good faith and on lawful terms.
And since some of the international bars include Russian lawyers, these groups are also treading carefully to acknowledge the concerns and needs of all their members.
On the global level, the International Bar Association, which groups 190 bar associations worldwide, has asked its members to provide “united and visible” support for Ukraine by condemning the invasion by Russia “in the strongest terms”—something that all the European bar associations contacted by Law.com International have done.
The IBA has also announced that, “until the appropriate time,” no Russian government officials nor agencies will participate in IBA committee events and no IBA event will be held in Russia.
Bar associations at the national and international level are also unanimous in their support for investigations, such as the one announced by the International Criminal Court, into crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed on Ukrainian territory.
Much of the action at the regional and national level revolves around support for the Ukrainian legal community and for refugee aid in Europe.
The Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, or CCBE, which represents groups in 45 countries and through them more than 1 million European lawyers, encouraged European lawyers to provide legal assistance to “people seeking international protection.”
National bar associations across the European Union are already mobilizing for a pan-European registry of legal contacts for Ukrainians seeking help—and some are leaving nothing to chance in the effort to recruit volunteers.
The Italian National Bar Council, or CNF, which represents some 245,000 lawyers in Italy, slapped a deadline of 11 a.m. Friday to receive names and spelled out the subject-matter expertise sought:
“We know that the problems to be addressed will range from the recognition of refugee status, the allocation of housing, food support, health care, family reunification and so on, with particular reference to the needs of minors,” the bar council’s leadership wrote in a letter to be distributed to law firms.
This, it added, “will require not only competence in the discipline of migration but also availability for relations with territorial and public welfare services, and those managed by voluntary associations.”
The German federal bar association said in a statement: “Particular caution is certainly required when a lawyer advises Russian clients in connection with the sanctions list. Violations of EU sanctions constitute criminal offenses or administrative offenses. In this case, a lawyer could possibly make himself liable to prosecution by providing assistance or committing an administrative offence.“
It added: “Apart from that, lawyers are basically free in their decision as to whether or to what extent they will continue to advise Russian clients. In any case, professional law provides nothing for a restriction. It is an ethical decision of the professional.”
Some bar associations are mirroring efforts by individual law firms to contribute money to Ukrainian causes. The Düsseldorf Bar, for example, is donating €3,000 to the Ukrainian National Lawyers’ Association, and it called on others to support “Ukrainian colleagues.”
The question of what to say about Russian lawyers, including those who want to protest the government’s actions, is complicated, to say the least. Bar associations are taking differing approaches.
The Ukrainian Bar Association released a statement urging Russian lawyers to act, by publicly protesting the Kremlin’s military aggression, and called on them to provide free legal aid to all persons detained during protests in the Russian Federation against the war in Ukraine.
“Every lawyer in the Russian Federation who keeps silent now, supports the war,” the association said in a statement. “Each of you who turns a blind eye to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, promotes acts of aggression and encourages the aggressive policy of the Kremlin.”
The pan-European CCBE, which has spoken out forcefully against the invasion, noted that it was “mindful also of the position of those Russian colleagues who do not feel able to speak out against this illegal war for fear of their lives.”
The French Bar Council, or CNB, saluted “the courageous position of Russian lawyers who have spoken out in favor of respect for the rule of law and the cessation of hostilities.
“This demonstrates the unwavering attachment of our profession to its essential values, despite the risks that such positions entail for defenders of rights,” the bar council, which represents 90,000 lawyers in France, said in a statement.
Lawyers and human rights defenders are the ones “who have promoted democratic values and the rule of law,” the CNB added. “It is for this reason that they are threatened today.”
Perhaps the most delicate area for the bar associations is what, if anything, to advise members about how to handle their Russian business going forward.
When asked what sort of guidance the Düssseldorf Bar was providing for local lawyers, a spokesperson said it was referring to guidance by the German Financial Intelligence Unit, which provides an overview of recent sanctions, and advising that the resulting requirements be “followed carefully.”
Spain’s national bar association, the Abogacía Española, said it was concentrating its efforts on supporting refugee relief, such as preparing an online immigration guide in Ukrainian spelling out refugees’ rights and where to go for aid.
The association is also offering training for Spanish lawyers on the specific issues concerning Ukrainians in the crisis.
“Nothing has been done so far about Spanish business in Russia or Ukraine,” the organization’s head of communications and marketing, Isabel García-Zarza Martínez, wrote in an email.
“I don’t think we will be issuing anything about it,” she said.”In general our approach to international issues is more from a human rights point of view.
In the Benelux countries, most representative bodies contacted by Law.com International insisted that, while they condemned the Russian invasion as a violation of international law, it was not their role nor within their powers to tell lawyers which clients to keep and which to cut loose.
When pressed, however, some insisted on lawyers’ duty to represent and choose their clients in good conscience, while others emphasized the right to counsel.
The bar representing Dutch-speaking lawyers in trilingual Belgium has been one of the few to take an unequivocal stance. Its president, Peter Callens, posted a LinkedIn message to his personal page this past week condemning calls on lawyers to let go of their Russian clients.
Reached by phone, he noted that lawyers take an oath at the beginning of their careers not to accept work that would be in conflict with their conscience.
“That still holds,” Callens said. “But outside of that, we are certainly not going to advise our [members] to systematically refuse Russian clients. That would be very unjust and a mockery of the principles of the rule of law.”
The bar association has not put out a public statement on the Russian invasion, but has urged its members to take heed of the newly imposed sanctions when advising Russian clients.
Xavier Van Gils, president of the bar that represents French and German-speaking lawyers in Belgium, took a more moderate stance. While advising lawyers to uphold their legal and professional obligations toward their Russian clients, he added: “Would it be opportune for lawyers to no longer counsel Russian clients in a general way, even though this [client base] also includes opponents of the regime currently in power? Would it be opportune for foreign doctors to no longer intervene in Russia?”
Asked what they were advising their members with Russian clients, a spokesperson for the Netherlands Bar insisted that they were not a supervisory authority and that lawyers should make their own decisions.
“We are not advising them anything in that regard,” Eric Trinthamer said. “It’s not up to us to say something about that.”
Pointing to an article of the Dutch constitution that establishes the right to counsel, he added: “You can’t just take your leave from people who are currently being advised by law firms.”
Valerie Dupong, president of the Luxembourg bar, said she had not yet been contacted by members seeking advice on whether to cut ties with Russian clients. But if she were to start fielding such calls in the coming days, she said, she would remind them of the deontological rules requiring lawyers to accept work in good faith.
“Everyone needs to make their own choices,” she said. “But we’ve taken a stance in terms of general politics that I think is rather clear.”