On the weekend of 26 February 2022, two days after President Putin declared a so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, I happened to meet up with John Vassiliou, CJ McKinney, Jennifer Blair, and Alex Piletska for the latter’s housewarming. We had become firm friends after meeting through Immigration Law Twitter (look it up, it’s a great place) and were looking forward to a relaxing weekend. Instead, we ended up founding the Ukraine Advice Project, a pro bono project which has used the skills of over 600 immigration lawyers to help Ukrainians and their family members come to the UK after the Russian invasion.

Immigration Law Twitter came to our aid again and a call for initial volunteers, supported by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association and Free Movement blog, garnered hundreds of responses. Ukrainian speakers, law students, busy barristers and solicitors, and even members of the public all generously offered their time. We aimed to match anyone fleeing the war in Ukraine with an immigration specialist who could offer them free advice and, where appropriate, representation. My friends and I, now joined by Simon Cox, worked around the clock to match requests for help with volunteers offering their time. The response from our professional regulators was also fantastic, with the Bar Councils of Scotland and England & Wales both dropping the requirement for public access accreditation for barristers undertaking work with the Ukraine Advice Project.

The UK refused to join the rest of Europe in dropping visa requirements for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, so we initially helped our clients to navigate the opaque and fast-changing immigration rules. Eventually, the Home Office introduced various bespoke schemes for Ukrainians and their family members both inside and outside the UK, which required additional advice, guidance and support.

It quickly became clear that a handful of coordinators running the project around full-time jobs would not be viable. DLA Piper came to the rescue and has run the project day-to-day for the last several months, assisted by Eversheds, Hogan Lovells and Clyde&Co. They deserve huge thanks and praise for coming on board unhesitatingly. Their scale and resource have allowed us to turn an ad hoc response into a viable, long-term project. Our wonderful immigration lawyer volunteers are still working on cases where anything more than initial advice is needed.

The project has given free advice in over 3,000 cases to date – a figure which represents a much larger number of people benefitting from this support. We hope to continue to do this work for as long as it is needed. While the initial demand for immigration advice has lessened, many Ukrainians are still in need of advice, especially as the initial six months of accommodation under the Homes for Ukraine scheme comes to an end and some find themselves facing homelessness.

Advocate has recently recognised that work by choosing the project as its Pro Bono Initiative of the Year. Pro bono advice has been essential to help Ukrainians navigate the often byzantine immigration system. However, we recognise that pro bono work can never be an appropriate substitute for a properly-funded legal aid system. However, in an emergency situation such as this where many applicants are ineligible for legal aid, pro bono work can play a crucial role in providing urgent help to those most in need.

The generosity and dedication of the lawyers who have worked with and supported the Ukraine Advice Project is inspiring. Lawyers across the UK have given up time to help for free, in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. In this frightening time, in the face of appalling cruelty perpetrated by the Russian regime, people up and down the country are eager to help, to offer their time and skills, to offer shelter and protection. Thank you to everyone who has done so.

If you would like to volunteer your time, or are in need of advice, you can find out more at advice-ukraine.co.uk