Ayo Onatade has been assisting leading British judges for decades. She talks to Craig Sisterson about her journey from achieving a diploma in law in Nigeria to witnessing history unfold in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
The public shouldn’t believe 90 per cent of what’s written about judges in the newspapers, says Ayo Onatade, who speaks with decades of experience and inside knowledge as a clerk and personal assistant to leading members of the British judiciary.
“For newspapers, unfortunately sometimes it’s more about sensationalism, because they want to sell copies,” says Onatade. “I know not everyone is interested, but sometimes if people had a better understanding of the way the law works, maybe they’d realise that things can’t automatically be done as rapidly or in the way they’d personally like.”
Now the PA to Lord Hamblen, Lord Leggatt and Lord Stephens in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, Onatade’s interest in law was sown while she was a schoolgirl in Nigeria.
“I always liked the law, and enjoyed the law when I did my diploma in Nigeria,” says Onatade. “I enjoyed reading the case law, and trying to figure out which way it was going to go, which pieces of the law do you have to use to sort out the particular problem.”
After returning to the UK in her early 20s, at a time when it was “just so difficult” for aspiring barristers to get a place in chambers, Onatade began a career in the civil service.
As it turned out, her interest in the law meant she’d spend many years in chambers anyway: judges’ chambers. After working in roles helping vulnerable people for the Public Trustee, then working with magistrates, Onatade began as a clerk at the Royal Courts of Justice.
“If I’m not mistaken when I joined the Royal Courts, I was the first black clerk they had,” she says. “And I was the first clerk they had that had a degree, because most of the clerks then were ex-Army, ex-Navy, ex-Police. Middle-aged or elderly white guys.”
The justices were aware how intimidating the courts could be, particularly for those who don’t see anyone that looks like them, recalls Onatade. Before she moved across to the Family Division, she was sometimes asked by her judge to go sit in the court.
“I’d go in, and there’d be a black family. He wanted me in there to reassure the family and make them realise there were black people working in the building. Sometimes they’d talk to me instead of the usher, because it set their minds at ease.”
Early on, Onatade was also a clerk in the Court of Appeal for Justice (now Baroness) Hale, who’d later go on to the House of Lords then become President of the Supreme Court. It would prove to be an enduring working relationship, and friendship, through various roles.
After her years with the President of the Family Division, managing all the clerks, Onatade re-joined Lady Hale as Office Manager for the Law Lords at the House of Lords, then moved with her (as Head of Judicial Support) when the Supreme Court was established in 2009.
More than twenty years on, Onatade still loves the law, and how her career has unfolded – in a different way than she ever envisaged when studying for her law diploma in Nigeria.
“I like seeing the law at work. Where I am now, because the decisions made can affect the country, it sometimes is exciting. And sometimes, you just can’t believe this is happening.”
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