Radio Sandwell Local News

Top female lawyer bringing justice to the West Midlands

2015-02-19 14:32:29

Grace OnoniwuGrace Ononiwu

It was the day an eight-year-old Grace Ononiwu first said she wanted to be a lawyer - to defend her dad in court.

Her father had received a simple speeding summons and his adoring daughter wanted to grow up quick to represent him.

Grace recalls: “I said, ‘Don’t worry Daddy, when I get older I will be your lawyer’. I wanted to be the one to help him.’’

From that moment on, Grace had one ambition: to become that lawyer.

And through sheer talent, drive, determination and some motherly advice she achieved that dream – and then some.

She was appointed Chief Crown Prosecutor for West Midlands Crown Prosecution Service last summer, making her one of the leading figures in the country’s criminal justice system today.

Yet her dream almost died when she failed all her O-Levels after being cruelly told by a teacher to forget her legal ambitions.

Grace, one of five children born to Nigerian parents, recalls: “When I was about 14 or 15 years old I went to a careers fair and was asked what job I wanted. I said a lawyer. The teacher said ‘No, you can’t do that. Have you considered being a legal secretary?’

“I was given 100 reasons why I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, and not one why I could. That really knocked me because my parents were quite strict and believed very much in authority and education. So when I was told that, I thought it must be true.

“In my own way I rebelled. I didn’t read, didn’t study, I knocked about with my friends and when it came to my O-Levels I failed them all.’’

Delivering the news to her mother was hard, but the lesson learned was life-changing.

Grace recalls: “She said ‘Well Grace, I guess that’s what you are worth’. I never forgot that.

“And what I remembered feeling was that I did not like how failure made me feel – so I never failed at anything again.’’

The re-focussed teenager flew through her resits and broke the good news to her mother.

Grace, now mum to her own daughter, remembers: “I said ‘Look I did this for you.’

“She said ‘No, you have not done it for me, you have done it for yourself.’

“I was quite hurt until she explained whatever you achieve in life can never be hinged on pleasing others. It was her way to help mould me and mould the way I think about being the best I can be. Trying to get that motivation from within, rather than relying on things that are external.

“It was a really important lesson.’’

Grace went on to study law and social sciences at university before enrolling at Guildford College of Law. She quickly discovered her background, brought up in London’s East End and having attended a comprehensive. It was in stark contrast to her predominately white and privately educated contemporaries.

“I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth, I didn’t go to the right school,’’ she says.

“When you look at the legal profession it is very traditional. I was not part of the establishment.

“On paper, I should not be where I am today.’’

The problems Grace faced being accepted were highlighted when she applied to become a trainee solicitor at legal firms.

“I sent out 70 applications and got one response,’’ she says. “Instead of focussing on the other 69 I didn’t hear from, I decided I’d focus us on the one I did. I went for the interview and got it.’’

Grace OnoniwuGrace Ononiwu

After beginning as a defence solicitor in 1991, Grace was advised by her company to spend two years training with the Crown Prosecution Service – and she never went back.

“I found my passion,” she says. “I found a way in which I could translate the caring side I had, protecting the vulnerable, protecting victims and witnesses. I had much more influence, opportunity to mould the outcome.

“As a defence lawyer I had to rely on how the case was put, to defend the individual. But as a prosecutor I could help everybody. I felt really comfortable in what I was doing. There was a clear purpose.’’

Grace rose quickly through the ranks of the CPS and a spell as Deputy Crown Prosecutor in London was followed by her appointment as Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northamptonshire in April 2005, making her the first African-Caribbean to be appointed to that position in the history of the CPS.

She was appointed Chief Crown Prosecutor for the East of England in August 2012 and took up the same role with the CPS in the West Midlands last June.

Throughout a career which has seen her awarded an OBE, the care and protection of victims and witnesses have always been a key priority for Grace and remains so today.

And the number of potential victims is growing, with increasing caseloads in historical sex abuse as well as in child sexual exploitation.

“As far as rape and sexual offences, historical rape, we are seeing more,” she says. “We think nationally there will be an increase of about 30 per cent in this type of work. This is an area of specialism for me.

“I’ve got all the time in the world to send a very clear message to those who offend in this way – you will be brought to justice.

“I will take the time to build those cases, and we now have a better understanding of the nuances and complexities involved.”

One recent success for the West Midlands CPS team was the conviction of Simon Harris, the private schoolteacher who abused dozens of children while working in Kenya.

“A number of our victims lived on the streets,” says Grace. “We had to ensure contact was kept with them without anything being seen as any kind of inducement. Sometimes providing lunch in those environments – where that is something they do not have every day – could be seen as a potential inducement.

“So our key strategy was to keep the victims engaged, involved, be in contact with them. My team did an exceptional job. That was a case that we were very proud of.’’

Of the many issues facing the West Midlands, domestic violence is a priority for Grace – and again, the care of victims.

Generally, the region is seeing between 30 to 40 per cent of cases failing because victims or witnesses fail to appear at court. The nation average is around 27 per cent. Most of the unsuccessful cases involve domestic violence.

The length of time it takes to get the cases to court is one area Grace wants to focus on, along with initiatives like prosecuting cases without the victim’s co-operation.

She explains: “I want us, the entire criminal justice system, to be processing these cases quicker. It takes a huge amount of courage to step forward and stay with the process and stay with the system.

“I remember a time when if the victim did not want to attend court, we would say well there’s no point prosecuting this case. Here, I have seen a couple of situations which tell me the mind-set of my prosecutors is very different and changing.

“In one case the victim had indicated she was not going to come to court and if forced, she would say nothing. This victim had been through a great deal and it was quite clear that if she was forced to come to court it might well affect her health.

“The difficulty we had was that the defendant had a history and not just with her, but also with previous partners. We knew if we didn’t send a message it was likely he would do it again.

“There was the welfare of the victim, and the wider public interest to consider. We started to look for different ways to prosecute.

“The officer had taken photos; we had the 999 call; we had the officer’s direct evidence of what he had seen and how she reacted. We had the defendant’s account, so we produced this without the victim – and we got the conviction.

“I have spent time with some domestic violence victims and some have said they want the decision taken away from them, but it is a balance because you don’t want them to feel powerless either.

“And where we have not done something correctly, I will say so and will apologise personally to the victim and, if I can, I will put it right. That is a real testament of where we are as a organisation, compared to where we were.’’

Looking to the challenges ahead. Grace is determined to help the needy and the vulnerable in crime-hit communities and encourage them to stand up by going to court when needed.

“Here in the West Midlands we would be ashamed to think there is someone out there vulnerable, being abused, who feels there is nowhere to turn,” she explains. “Because actually that is what their abuser would be telling them.

“We’re going to be telling them that there is somewhere to go, that we are here to listen, and we want them to come forward, that we have services in place to support them.

“This is wider than just us, it is the police, victim’s services, mental health. We should be communicating with those victims, telling them that what they are being told about being nowhere to turn, is simply not true.

“I really want the communities here in the West Midlands to feel empowered to create the communities they want to live in, work in and want people to visit. “What that involves is that sometimes you have to step forward, to do it not just for yourselves, but for what we want to create here in the West Midlands. It’s my job to support them to do that.”

Ask her if tackling such huge issues in such complicated communities is difficult, and Grace has a ready answer: “I do difficult.”

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