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‘Gender discrimination killing female lawyers’

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‘Gender discrimination killing female lawyers’

Ugochi Ndukwe attended Imo State University for her LL.B between 2010 and 2015. She was called to the Bar on November 29, 2016, having attended the one year mandatory professional course at the Law School where she obtained her Barrister-at-Law and Solicitor of the Supreme Court. Ndukwe shares how her foray into the noble profession began with JOHN CHIKEZIE

 

Background
I am Ugochi Theresa Ndukwe and I am from Umudiaba, Umuihi in Ihitte Uboma Local Government in Imo State. I obtained a Secondary School Certificate at Estaport Secondary School, Soluyi in Lagos in 2010. I graduated from the faculty of Law, Imo State University, Owerri with a Bachelor Degree in Law after which I enrolled into the Nigerian Law School, Lagos campus in 2015. I was called to the Bar on November 29, 2016.

Choice of career
As a child, I nurtured the ambition of becoming a medical practitioner. This ambition was based on the fact that I wanted to be an instrument of help to humanity. However, at the second half of my secondary education, I realized that I wasn’t doing so well in core science courses, I had to switch to Arts. It wasn’t difficult for me to choose law because I had always admired lawyers. There is this charisma that comes with the profession, the lawyers around me then, although quite a few, were given this “first class citizen” treatment. In addition to my admiration for lawyers, it fitted into my ambition to serve humanity through rendering of legal services.

My first court appearance
My first appearance alone was a different experience on its own. The matter was for mention and was listed as number six on the cause list. This particular matter had previously got to the final address stage but was started ‘de novo’ upon the application of my chambers on behalf of our client due to the inadmissibility of our vital evidence relevant to our matter by the lower court which was ruled admissible by the apex court. First, the judge knew about the facts of this case and was not happy that the case started all over again. She lamented that it was a waste of time and that we would have reopened our case and tender the evidence rather than starting afresh. However, after waiting to hear the tenth matter being mentioned and mine wasn’t, I immediately enquired from a senior counsel sitting beside me on what to do. He advised that I should call the judge’s attention to it because the registrar may have skipped it. Before the next matter was called, I summoned the courage, stood up, made my appearance and thereafter told the judge politely that my matter which was the sixth on the cause list had been omitted. I was shocked when the judge began to tongue-lash me, asking me if I was the only lawyer in the courtroom whose matter had not been called. She also stated that it was a deliberate omission, and expressed her displeasure on the matter being started ‘de novo’. After scaring the crap out of me, she told the registrar to call my matter, which he did.

Pupilage
My pupilage began in law school. There is a mandatory law school programme where aspirants to Bar are sent to law firms and courts for placement to enable them acquire practical legal practice experience. Sequel to this, I was posted to the High Court of Lagos, Ikeja Judicial Division, under the supervision of Hon. Justice Oluwatoyin Ipaye. I really learnt a lot from her as she usually call us into her chambers after each day’s sitting and ask about our observations and thereafter clarify the ‘ratio decidendi’ for each ruling or judgement of the day. Upon the completion of my six weeks court placement, I moved to the law firm of Osammor Otionnor & Co., a law firm situated at Ikeja, Lagos State, for the chamber placement. I didn’t really gain much practical experience there as the principal partner barely involved us in his cases. However, the six of us posted to the law firm decided to tutor ourselves. We would take case files from the library, study and analyze them based on what we were taught in law school. The pupilage continued during my compulsory National Youth Service programme as I was privileged to serve in the law firm of Idowo Sofola MON, SAN (of blessed memory). There, I got not only a real practical legal experience but also an improved ICT knowledge, good working ethics and above all, discovered my potential and capabilities as a lawyer. All these were possible because the law firm believes that any law graduate who has been called to the Bar is already a professional. The firm got me involved in its cases even when I didn’t believe much in myself. On this note, I owe my sincere appreciation to the Head of Chambers, Mrs. Abisola Aarinola, for her scolding and corrections. I believe that every day of life is a learning process and therefore state that I am open every day to more learning opportunities.

Undergraduate and law school experiences
Both my undergraduate and the law school experiences played their individual vital roles in shaping my career in the legal profession. The university laid the foundation for my career and taught me substantive law. The law school, however, is more practical than the university because of the curriculum which accommodates law firms and court externship programmes. At the law school, we were taught the application of substantive law which we were taught in the university. Meanwhile, I do not consider any of them less important to my career pursuit because without one, I would not have a legal career.

Challenges and competence
Well, Female lawyers are more careful in nature and therefore pay more attention to details than their male counterparts. And this is a great tool in the legal profession. Irrespective of these, they are usually belittled in the profession. Female lawyers do not enjoy any form of added advantage over the male lawyers rather are denied certain privileges. Female lawyers are perceived by some as incompetent simply because of their gender. I remember seeing some job adverts both online and at the courts’ notice board which emphatically stated that only male lawyers are eligible to apply.

Rule of law
The basic principle of the rule of law is the principle of fair hearing. Fair hearing is the principle of justice which imposes an obligation on a person who has the power to make decisions affecting other people to act fairly, without bias and to afford every person an opportunity to be heard and adequately make their case, before the decision is made. The right of fair hearing is guaranteed under Section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999. The concept of fair hearing is at the foundation of the legal system. Two major principles of fair hearing includes; “Audi alteram partem”, a latin expression which means, “hear the other party”. It is a principle of fair-hearing which states that no one should be condemned unheard. The second principle is “Nemo judex in causa sua” which means that no one should be a judge in his own cause. No one should be both a prosecutor and a judge, in a matter in which he is a party, or has an interest or stake. A judge should not be interested or biased in the subject matter or proceedings before him.

What I envision for myself
I aspire to be a General Counsel of a mid-sized public company. But that is a long term goal. In the short term, I will like to work in an organization that is growing and scaling where I can diversify my skill, sets and perhaps gain some managerial experience to shape me into the actualization of my long term goals.

Criminal Justice system
The administration of Criminal Justice in Nigeria has so far made a caricature of our justice system. The judiciary should be a placed where an ordinary man should come and believe justice has been done without any room for doubt. The moment judicial officers are been harassed with the DSS , EFCC and other security agencies without following the due process in accordance with the law, it brings distrusts amongst the citizens, who are supposed to be prospective litigants and the judiciary. Following the incessant arrest and embarrassment of judges, it is of no doubt that the system will be compromised. A fight against corruption where judges are compromised or coerced to convict suspects on first sight is as good as corrupt. Section 6(6)(b) of the Constitution gives the court of law an unfettered power to adjudicate all civil and criminal matters. In any case where the executive hijack the powers of the courts, there is a serious problem that should be dealt with before any other problem is tackled. This is because corruption cases cannot to be tried at the court whose powers are under jeopardy. Any judgement delivered by these courts under such condition cannot be taken serious because it lacks a mind of its own. The federal government has a very big task of fighting itself first, before talking of fighting corruption. The government is more corrupt by thinking they can fight corruption in a corrupt way. Using DSS and other security agencies to intimidate judges and the continued detention of suspect already set free by the law is the height of corruption.

Remuneration
As a young lawyer, the remuneration is usually not rosy. Generally, there are quite a few law firms that pay a reasonable amount, most seniors in the profession fondly speak of how little they earned when they started and some even go as far as saying they weren’t paid anything at all in the first few years of practice. I was once in an interview and a lawyer said to me that at this stage of my practice, I should be the one paying senior lawyers to learn. Another lawyer once told me that at my one year plus in the bar, N45, 000 was way too much for a salary for me. The other told me that in her 11year in practice she earned N70, 000. But I kept wondering whether these people realize that times change. Now tell me, can someone compare the value of a Naira to dollar in the 1990’s to the present value? Frankly speaking, I am sure that if most young lawyers knew all these, they wouldn’t have opted for law. In all, I take it as my time of humble beginning and believe with time things will change for the best.

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