Editor’s Note:In Nigeria, it is not often that you hear of a young lawyer whose clients don’t mind having her flight tickets included in their bills. Such privileges are accorded only Senior Advocates and highly experienced attorneys. But because of her specialized area of practice and her dedication to her clients, Chika Ugonwa, a young lawyer in her early thirties, is so sought-after that her practice takes her around the country. Chika (whose vision includes to establish a firm that will serve as a one stop shop for everything Travelling/Immigration inquiry and assistance in Nigeria; to establish bilateral relation with immigration firms all over the world, Embassies and High Commissions; and to build a strong brand on the foundation of Trust and Integrity) granted us this interview discussing her work as an Immigration Lawyer, the epidemic of human trafficking in Nigeria, and why she think laws protecting only women are unnecessary. She also expressed her desire to help women who are marginalized, pro bono. In her down time, Chika writes poems with such great rhymes you will want to give her some dimes. I hope Chika’s extraordinary courage and hard work inspires you, like it inspired me.
We are excited to do this interview with you. Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself.
Thanks for having me. My name is Chika Ugonwa. I am a Lawyer, a Graduate Manager, an Immigration Consultant and an Entrepreneur. In the past I worked with Abubakar Mustapha & Co. (Kaduna) and Threshold Barrister & Solicitors (Lagos). Presently, I am running my own firm Tnencucc Consulting in partnership with Reality Education Ltd (Port Harcourt), Rexcue Barrister and Solicitors (Lagos), and New Dimension Konsult (Kaduna).
Okay, now that sounds interesting. You are affiliated with three firms. What’s the arrangement like?
I started my Immigration Law practice in Lagos with Threshold Immigration Consult which is a subsidiary of Threshold Barristers & Solicitors. As you know, Legal practice is built on trust and in the course of the attorney-client relationship, one has access to client’s sensitive private and financial information. So when I moved to Abuja, a lot of my Lagos clients still sought me. My efforts to get them to work with other lawyers failed. That was where the partnership idea came from. After some attempts at trying to work with my clients in Lagos from Abuja, I realized that I could successfully serve clients anywhere.
For my clients who are based in Lagos for instance, they consult me through the phone or email. Then I do their work and send the finished work to my colleague (Rexcue Barrister and Solicitors Lagos), who ensures my clients properly endorse their documents. For some VIP clients who can afford to fly me to their location, I also go to them to finalize and prep them for Interview.
Overtime, through referrals, my clientèle grew; some clients trust whoever referred them enough to release personal information and pay professional fees without seeing me. Others don’t mind the cost to get a one-on-one meeting with me. When they can afford it, they come to me or if the fee is right I go to them using any of my partners’ office as a meeting point.
Congratulations on your achievements so far. Has law practice been what you expected? Many people go into law school with great ideas. Did the reality of law practice match your earlier expectations of what to expect from the practice of Law?
I don’t know about ‘many people.’ For me, I did not really go into the law program with great expectations or any expectations. The decision to study law was suggested by someone I could never say No to. In secondary school I was good in social sciences and art, my parents wanted me to be an accountant; my grandfather wanted Law. I chose Law. In University my goal was not to fail my grandfather, my parents who were paying for my education and myself. (In my family, my siblings and I are a bit competitive). Long story short: I did not have ‘earlier expectations.’ But having practiced for a while I expect so much more from colleagues, the Bar, the bench, and our legislators (our legislators are surrounded by lawyers, bills are drafted by lawyers so lawyers should be blamed for ALL the faults in our laws). The socio-economic fate of this country to a large extent lies with the legal profession and so it suffices to say we are to a large extent part of the problem of the country. We need strict ethics and conduct regulations.
What has been your greatest challenge practicing law in Nigeria?
Law practice is a very broad concept. The challenges a lawyer encounters are unique to his/her area of practice. My areas are Maritime, Civil, Family, Company and Immigration law practice. I can write a book on the challenges for each but for this interview I will only mention one challenge in Maritime practice which is ‘stagnancy’.
My former firm (Threshold barristers & Solicitors) had over 30 cases on different maritime matters. Apart from one of the matters that I got a default Judgement on, others ended up in settlement before I got the chance to taste my skills in trial. In court one day while I was moving yet another motion for discontinuance and adoption of parties’ terms of settlement, the Judge said (jokingly) that in his 20 years in the bench he was yet to deliver a final Judgement on a Maritime case.
In Maritime, litigation is instituted just to get the shippers/and or the insurance company to settle. Hence in rare cases where the matter goes all the way to trial, there are hardly sufficient judicial precedents to rely on.
But one may consider the cases settling a good thing, seeing how we are now advocating for alternative means of resolving disputes which reduces the stress and hostility associated with litigation. However, I can see how lack of precedence in case law is a disadvantage for the Maritime cases that do make it to trial. Of all the areas of law you mentioned you practice, which do you practice more?
I practice Immigration Law more. Thanks to Nigeria legal system, a lawyer in Nigeria can practice in any part of Nigeria. My Job takes me around the Country (and I hope someday beyond) and we attend to clients at any location within Nigeria.
Are you surprised at how little or much your clients know about Immigration law?
Not at all; Immigration law practice is still a grey area of practice. I was fortunate to stumble into it myself. Its sounds alien when I discuss it with my colleagues. Apart from a few firms in Lagos I am not sure there are firms in other jurisdictions who engage in it. Imagine how many countries there are and the entry demands for those countries. Through this job, I have learned a lot and I am still learning.
Most people are not even aware of the need to consult a lawyer until it’s a bit late. Some clients come to us with terrible immigration record. There are cases of applicants with over ten refusal stamps in their passports. These are eligible applicants seeking entry for genuine purposes (e.g business, study, medical etc). Their applications are refused repeatedly because of poor or improper documentation. It’s sad considering that application fees are non refundable. A particular client who came to us after he had been refused over and over again only found out after he consulted us that he was serving a ten-year ban as a result of some forged documents an ‘agent’ used in his first application. His refusal letter always stated “refused under para.360H.” I had to explain to him that any refusal under S.360 attracts a ten-year ban. While we do our best to fix some, there are some cases, like the applicant serving a ten-year ban, we can’t fix.
Years ago, anyone in Nigeria could have multiple passports with different identities on each although it is illegal. However, that is no longer practicable in this era of E-passport and bio-metrics. It has now become imperative for people to consult an immigration lawyer first before applying for any visa.
Many Nigerians do not know that some lawyers specialize in Immigration Law practice. For their benefit, please what does a Nigerian Immigration Lawyer do?
You are right. And not a lot of people know that traveling across border is actually a right not a privilege. Let me not bore your readers with sections of UN Treaties and African Charters on Human right and other citations that uphold these rights.
In summary; A country cannot close its borders from entry to members of other territories. There are exceptions though.
We attend to Immigration issues bothering on;
Permanent migrants i.e spouses, children, parents etc. who seeks to join families overseas across border or regularize foreigners already in the country. Temporary Migrants which includes International Students, Work permits (eg. Canada Federal Skill migrant scheme, for professional migrants) etc. My firm is also an International Education facilitator. We work with schools in Europe, United States, Canada, Australia, Malaysia etc. Then we have our cluster clientele: the short time Visitors. Tourist, family visitors, Medicals Visitors etc.
It is quite an interesting job. You will be amazed at the volume of immigration cases there are out there.
In addition to the above, we also organize trainings and seminars. News are often reported about mangled dead bodies found in international flights tyre compartments, like the stories here: http://www.nairaland.com/432392/desperate-man-sneaks-into-delta, http://old.nationaldailyng.com/news/crime/5988-arik-dead-body-uk-authorities-may-join-investigation. Some lose their lives at Sahara Desert or at sea, in desperate attempt to illegally migrate in quest for greener pastures. In the later instance, loved ones are saddled with the agony of not knowing for sure what happened to their wards–pain they will be forced to endure to their graves. Those who promote these inhuman practices for profit will never inform their clients of the risks involved. Through these seminars we educate the youths on the dangers of illegal migration, we warn them against patronising fraudsters who will promise them 1st world countries Visas just to reap them and they families off huge sums of money. We also create awareness on human trafficking.
I am truly amazed at your accomplishments. Chika Unaigwe’s novel On Black Sisters’ Street is an eye-opener on human trafficking in Nigeria and prostitution by Nigerians abroad. I am happy you are part of the group making efforts to stop this inhuman act. So in concrete terms, what type of services do you render to your clients?
1. We offer professional advisory services. Information is very important, especially since countries keep reviewing their immigration rules and regulations to protect their borders against economic migrants and terrorists. It is our duty to advise based on the prevailing rules and regulations. We also advise clients on their eligibility status.
2. We give packaging assistance; a lot of immigration process / application is done online and not many people know their way around the internet nor have the patience to be bothered with it, and the question may be a bit technical, so we do the actual application for clients who retain us to do so.
3. We also represent clients on appeals (via paper litigation) for clients who have been wrongfully refused. We prepare ground of appeal, witness statement(s) etc.
4. Further, we offer International Investors legal assistance through our partnership with other law firms abroad. We can help a client secure an investment abroad, or a foreigner secure investments here (Nigeria).
What is the most fulfilling case you have ever handled?
As a rule, I do not take on any case I am not passionate about. It is my passion that propels me to give my best. In my immigration practice however, one particular case comes to mind though. Client was a 17-year old boy at that time. He lost his mother at a young age. His mother was never married to his father. He was raised by his maternal grandmother who also later became deceased. His father was a Nigerian / Belgian permanently resident in Belgium. He wanted the client to join him. There were a lot of documentary challenges. Initially it looked like a hopeless case. The client, young and without assistance (other than professional fee his father paid to the firm), did all his best to assemble necessary documentation. He made several trips from Edo (where he was living at the time) to our firm in Lagos. The package took about 6 months to tidy up and another 6 months in the embassy. I was gearing up for appeals when the documents came out and his application was granted. This case was fulfilling for me because in the course of packaging the client’s application, I got to learn of his life story. He’d had a difficult life and I felt that he deserved a break. I was very happy he got his visa. He is doing very well in Belgium now.
I share your joy. I do find too that the cases we tend to love the most are not the ones we made most money from but the ones we helped our clients get life-changing results. Given your diverse practice, have you noticed any dissimilarity between Immigration Law and other areas of law practice?
Yes there are, for instance, one of the popular principles in law is that a person is ‘innocent until proven guilty’. In Immigration law the reverse is the case. In Immigration Law, it is an applicant’s duty to prove that his/her purpose is genuine before his/her request is granted. In other words, you are considered an Economic Migrant (especially if you are applying from an undeveloped country to a developed country) until evidence proves otherwise.
Another difference is that Immigration law is not guided by Precedence. Even where two clients have the same immigration challenges, solutions are rarely the same. Every application is unique to the applicant’s personal and economic circumstances.
Lagos State government recently uploaded the State Laws on the internet but requires people to make a certain payment before accessing them. What is your take on this? Shouldn’t people know, say the Criminal Code, without having to buy them, in order not to break the law.
I have always been of the opinion that basic laws (criminal law and fundamental human rights) should be introduced as subjects is senior secondary schools and that such laws be also made available to the masses especially since ignorance of the law is not a defence in law. Take this yahoo yahoo thing for example, a lot of youths who engage in it do it for the fun of it as much as for the money. They are ignorant of the fact that they are committing a felony nor the penalty it attracts. But the Government as usual is focused on generating revenue at the expense of the masses’ welfare.
The National Assembly did not pass the gender equality bill that was presented before it earlier this year. What effect do you think passing this law would have had on women’s right?
I have not read the bill though but I do not think it will have any substantive effect on women’s right. I am not aware of any law(in my jurisdiction) that is specifically discriminatory against women. The constitution provided for Fundamental HUMAN rights. The Criminal Code did not segregate crimes or penalties on gender. I am indifferent to the bill just like I am indifferent to the bill on domestic violence (when the criminal code has amply provided laws against physical and non-physical violence). I am indifferent to these laws and bills focusing on women simply because I think they amount to proliferation of laws. If we women are serious about our rights, we should stop expecting special treatment. It is our constitutionally giving right to challenge any law or practice that we feel is discriminatory towards us on basis of gender. Any woman who seeks to challenge such laws or practice will have my support pro bono.
So if someone wants to apply for visitors’ visa to U.S. are you able to do that?
Yes. Like I said the bulk of our clients falls in the Visitors (short term travellers) category. We also serve clients who wish to travel to Canada, Australia, Europe etc .
Where can people get information and resources about Maritime Laws and Immigration Laws in Nigeria?
There are plethora of books and legislations on Maritime: NIMASA ACT 2007, Sabotage Act etc. For Immigration law, there is the Immigration Act but general rule , it is the Immigration rules and regulation of the country a client is seeking entry to that is relied on.
You practice Maritime law. What is the relationship between depreciation of the Naira and Importation?
The Naira depreciation is as a result of Nigeria’s heavy reliance on importation. Nigeria imports almost everything. If importation reduces, the Naira will appreciate.
Thank you, Chika. I enjoyed this interview and I learned quite a lot, and I’m sure our readers will too.
You are most welcome, Anne, and thanks again for having me. It is an Amazing job you are doing with the blog.
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