Grace Ononiwu

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This was a BLD interview with Debo Nwauzu in November 2006. Read more about Grace Ononiwu in the Directory

Our Lawyer of the Month is Grace Ononiwu, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northamptonshire.

Grace was born in 1966 in Tottenham in North London but grew up in the East End of London. She attended HatfieldUniversity between 1984 and 1987 to read Law and Social Sciences. After graduating she attended the College of Law in Guildford to do her Solicitors Finals. Grace did her training contract at Allan Janes Solicitors, a High Street Practice in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire doing predominantly criminal defence work. On qualification as a solicitor, she stayed on at Allan Janes for another year until 1991.

Grace left private practice to join the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in 1991 on the basis of the discussion she had with her then principal who regretted not having done any work as a prosecution lawyer as he felt such an experience would have made him a better and rounded criminal lawyer. Grace became a Crown Prosecutor prosecuting cases in and around London intending only to stay for 2-3 years before returning to private practice. By 1993 she had been promoted to Senior Crown Prosecutor and was responsible for prosecution at a number of CPS branches across London including Redbridge, Havering, Stratford, Barking, Highbury, Croydon and Bromley which are such varied areas with different needs and requiring differing levels of responsibilities.

In 1998 she was promoted to the position of Acting Prosecution Team Leader in Croydon (which also included Bromley in Kent and Sutton in Surrey) with the responsibility for fifteen lawyers, seven case workers and some 7 Administrative Staff.  At this time she was also given the responsibility of implementing the Narey initiative as Croydon was identified as the pilot site for the project. The Narey Project was a ground-breaking project whereby for the first time designated caseworkers dealt with straightforward pleas. The case workers also attended police stations to review cases. The Narey initiative also for the first time made it possible for prosecutors to attend Crown Courts to deal with preliminary hearing rather than instructing external counsels.                                                                                                                              

In 2001 she was appointed the Project Manager for the Holborn Glidewell Project and was responsible for the planning and implementation of the first co-located unit in the Metropolitan Police area. This was another ground-breaking initiative whereby the Police and the CPS worked together in case preparation. Grace’s Highbury team (which also includes the extremely busy Hackney area) was the first to be co-located. She was one of the group of 8 people (which also included the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecution) to meet the Prime Minister, Tony Blair to speak about this project.

In 2002 Grace was promoted to Borough Crown Prosecutor and Head of Holborn Glidewell Criminal Justice Unit.  This was followed in 2003 with the promotion to District Crown Prosecutor and Head of the Blackfriars Trial Unit. She then assumed responsibility not only for the Trial Unit but the Criminal Justice Unit. In 2004 she was appointed the Head of the first Combined Unit in London (i.e. Combined Trial Unit and Criminal Justice Unit).

Grace was appointed Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northamptonshire in April 2005 and was the first black person of African/Caribbean origin to be so appointed.

Grace is a member of the Northamptonshire Criminal Justice Board, which is a group where all of the chief officers within the criminal justice system from Northamptonshire meet in order to improve the criminal justice system by having a joined up approach. Board members (apart from Grace) include the Head of the Court Service, the Chief Constable, the Head of Probation Service, the Head of Victims Service, the Head of Prison Service, the Head of Youth Service, senior officers and administration support.

Grace is on the board of Infonet, which is the largest IT project within the CPS. She is also a member of the Domestic Violence Board and board member of the Secured Justice offences which has the task of ensuring that those who commit offences are brought to justice, particularly domestic violence offences.

Since 2003 Grace has been the Vice Chair of the National Black Crown prosecution Association (NBCPA) and has the responsibility of assisting the leadership and advising on strategy. This is a role she relishes and thinks is very important to support up and coming ethnic minority lawyers. Up until her appointment as a Chief Crown Prosecutor in 2005, she was also part of the team that coordinated the area representatives that regularly visit schools to talk to school about their work as lawyers within the CPS.

Grace is committed to doing charitable work including going into schools to talk about the role of lawyers within the CPS. She feels very strongly that she wants to give something back to the children and budding lawyers so that they have high aspirations and to better themselves.

Below is our interview with Grace:

BLD: Why did you choose law as a career?

GO: I decided around eight years old that I wanted to be a lawyer whilst watching Crown Court on TV. I am not sure whether it was my mother who drove that ambition but I have always been focused that that was what I wanted to do.

BLD: Why did you choose to join the CPS and what has made you stay on for 15 years?

GO: I decided to join after having a conversation with my late principal, Robin Dukes who advised me that to become a very good criminal lawyer, you also need to have the experience of prosecuting. I decided to stay because I honestly enjoyed my job. As a prosecutor you have the power and the ability to do the right thing at the beginning, which is not something you can do as a defence lawyer. I had an opportunity to make a difference. At the time I joined the CPS there were very few black prosecutors and that also made me stay - to encourage others to join.

BLD: If you were to choose a profession other than law, what would it be and why?

GO: I would have loved a career in television such as being a chat hostess because I love people and I am very interested in people as I believe you can learn from absolutely everybody. Being on television I believe you learn so much and share that knowledge with a wider audience.

BLD: What was the best career advice you were given?

GO: I think the advice given by my then principal, the late Robin Dukes which led me to join the CPS. He also told me all those years ago that I was going to be an important lady one day. My mother also said to me that those who are able to grab success are those who are able to try. As a result I never stopped trying and love being a “first”.

BLD: What was the worst career advice you were given?

GO: The Careers officer at school told me there was no way I could be a lawyer and I should consider being a legal secretary. I was fourteen/fifteen years old at the time and this destroyed the dream I had at an early age as my parents always told me to listen to the teachers and I did. I totally rebelled and failed all my ‘O’ Levels as I thought there was no point in trying. When I failed though, it was the longest walk home to my mum. I never failed again after that as I hated how failure made me feel and that was a turning point. I worked in a shoe shop throughout my studies as I was determined to qualify.

BLD: What is the best career advice you will give to other lawyers and budding lawyers?

GO: Believe in yourself and work to build your skills. Learn your craft, recognise that you have something to contribute and have the determination and enthusiasm to succeed.

BLD: The person you most admire (dead or alive)?

GO: My parents. My father sadly died two years ago. They are a clear example of what can be achieved if you work hard. They came to England with nothing and little education. They instilled in me that I can be whatever I want to be.

BLD: Tell us your professional high point(s).

GO: Being appointed as Chief Crown Prosecutor. I felt on top of the world.

BLD: What was your worst case/worst moment as a lawyer?

GO: When there was a restructuring at Holborn Glidewell and I failed to get the job initially because I had failed to prepare adequately having focused on making the project a success.

BLD: What was the most famous/interesting case(s) you have handled to date?

GO: So many! If I must choose it was the murder of a young Asian girl by her family when she was beaten by members of her family to death because they thought she was the Devil. It was horrific as her mother, father and brother were all convicted for murder. There are some particularly bizarre cases that I am not able to talk about. I have also done a lot of work on Trident in London (black on black crime).

BLD: What are you most passionate/happiest about?

GO: My daughter.

BLD: What are your dislikes?

GO: I really, really dislike selfish people as there is no need since there is enough to go round.

BLD: Any professional regrets?

GO: None at all.

BLD: If you could rule the world for a day what would you change/do?

GO: I would completely revamp the education system to ensure that our children are not labeled or stigmatized, knowledge is power. If this is done then every child has a chance.

BLD: How do you juggle work, family life etc?

GO: With difficulty. Anyway I believe anything that is not difficult is not worth having. I have very good family support and the CPS is very good about flexible working hours.

BLD:Do tell us about your family life.

GO: I am one of five children, three sisters and one brother. I was a middle child, my eldest sister is a practice manager, my older sister is a nurse and my brother owns his own business – a BMW garage. My baby sister is a researcher with the Anthony Nolan Trust. I have a daughter Nicole who is seven.