Grace Ononiwu OBE CCP is Chief Crown Prosecutor for the West Midlands region. She qualified as a solicitor in 1991, and began her legal career working at a private firm of solicitors in High Wycombe practising criminal law, before joining the CPS in 1991 as a Crown Prosecutor. She has held several posts in the CPS, which led to her ultimate appointment as Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northamptonshire in April 2005.
“…I am passionate about the need to protect victims and wider public. My role provides an opportunity to make an effective contribution to this aim…”
Please can you tell us about your career to date and what made you want to pursue a career in the law?
I have been passionate about the legal system for many years and this had a lot to do with my key personal values of honesty, integrity and fairness.
I qualified as a solicitor in 1991. Initially I worked at a private firm of solicitors in High Wycombe practising criminal law, and joined the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in late 1991 as a Crown Prosecutor.
I held a number of positions in the CPS, before the ultimate appointment as Chief Crown Prosecutor for Northamptonshire in April 2005, making me the first African Caribbean person to be appointed to that position in the history of the CPS.
In April 2009 I was appointed to the post of Legal Director for North Region, CPS London, before becoming Deputy Chief Crown Prosecutor for all the London Districts. Subsequently I was appointed as Chief Crown Prosecutor for the East of England Area in August 2012 and took up the post of Chief Crown Prosecutor for the West Midlands Region on 23rd June 2014. I received the OBE in 2008.
For our readers without a legal background, please can you briefly explain your role as a crown prosecutor?
I am the Chief Crown Prosecutor for the CPS West Midlands Region, which incorporates the police forces of West Midlands, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Mercia and British Transport Police.
The Chief Crown Prosecutor is the most senior lawyer within the region. I am accountable for every case, every decision taken in the region. I am supported by a senior team and a total of 467 staff, which consist of lawyers, paralegal officers and assistants. In the main, our role is to decide in cases investigated by the police whether a person should be charged with a criminal offence. If we decide a person should be charged, we then prosecute these cases in court.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I lead one of the largest CPS Regions and I am passionate about the need to protect victims and wider public. My role provides an opportunity to make an effective contribution to this aim. I recognise that the decisions we make have an impact on a person’s safety, liberty, livelihood and reputation and I take this responsibility seriously as do the 467 staff that work in the West Midlands Region. I like that we make a difference to the communities we aim to serve.
The legal sector is known to be extremely male dominated. What are the statistics for the Crown Prosecution Service in terms of gender balance and what (if anything) is being done to improve these?
I do recognise that some parts of the legal sector may be perceived as being male dominated. However the CPS and my own Region are very committed to effectively achieving all strands of diversity including a gender balance.
As at June 2015, 65% of the CPS workforce are women, this is higher than the Civil Service average of female employees (54%) and the female population of the UK (51%) – ONS census 2011. It is our intention through our policies and procedures to ensure that there is fairness and opportunity in order to attract and retain a workforce representative of the population.
Judges and the courts are notoriously demanding and pressurised. How do you ensure you are able to have an acceptable work / life balance when you may receive large bundles of papers that you must read in the evenings or over the weekend?
I am not always successful at achieving this balance, but I have got better over the years. My daughter and family are incredibly important to me so I continue to ensure that I try to balance my time effectively.
To what extent is it possible to work flexibly in your role?
It is essential to work flexibly in my role to manage the variety of the workload and the timelines for different aspects of the work. It is not a 9am – 5pm job. Although the office itself is open office hours, the role requires a more flexible approach to respond to the issues that arise many of which cannot be predicted in advance.
What is your advice for girls and women looking to work in criminal law?
My advice to girls and women looking to work in the law is that it is really important for an individual to try to understand which aspects of a role really appeal to them and then this will then help to shape their career choices. I think it is important to believe in yourself and to be clear about your own personal values. Success comes to those who are brave enough to try.