Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do outside of volunteering as a magistrate?
I’m Anthony Fitzgerald and, outside of volunteering as a magistrate, I work as a careers and higher education adviser at a south-west London school, managing university and apprenticeship applications. I hugely enjoy this role and it keeps me young at heart because I work mostly with 15-18-year-olds.
Having studied French and German at university and gone on to learn Swedish, Polish and Spanish, among others, my main interest is languages. I’ve lived all over Europe, including in south-west Poland as a Voluntary Service Overseas education volunteer in the 1990s. I enjoy hillwalking and gardening, and am looking after a community garden in Eastbourne where I’m based with my husband Stephen and cocker spaniel Milo.
What motivated you to become a magistrate and did you have to overcome any barriers along the way?
A friend who sat as a family and criminal court magistrate encouraged me to apply. Reluctant at first, it was the court observations that clinched it—I could see how you didn’t need legal training to perform this vital role. It quickly became clear there are a variety of courts you’d sit in, making each sitting different and interesting.
As I applied before lockdown, I found it a particularly lengthy process with my swearing-in ceremony only happening in May 2022. I understand the process is now more streamlined, and I’ve met magistrates who have been recruited within 12 months. I found the recruitment process positive, as it showed exactly what skills and qualities I needed to have and assessed my potential to do the role through the various recruitment tasks.
What do you find most rewarding and challenging about the role?
I love meeting the other magistrates—there’s always time to chat while waiting to deal with cases. The court staff are also so friendly, knowledgeable and encouraging. It’s an upbeat, positive atmosphere despite the challenges of some of the cases and the quirks of the justice system. I enjoy the responsibility and being able to make tough decisions collaboratively with the other bench members (and with the legal adviser’s support).
The main challenge for me is squaring the role with my work. As an adviser, my priority is supporting and encouraging young people to be the best that they can be and reach their goals. At court, you are looking at more than this when sentencing: rehabilitation of the offender, punishment for the crime and redress for society to help stop crime.
It can also be tricky sitting on trials trying to work out who you believe, especially when two people are locked in a personal conflict that has led to criminality, and it’s now the responsibility of the bench to decide. It’s important to assert oneself in deliberations, as you may have spotted something your colleagues hadn’t from all the facts before you. Equally, you need to accept a majority verdict with good grace if you don’t agree with your colleagues and it is a 2:1 majority.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that others have about magistrates?
That you need to be legally trained.
How important is it that the magistracy is diverse, and what would you say to other LGBT+ people considering applying?
It’s absolutely key and you’re needed. We’re meant to mirror society, so we need to ensure more representation from Black, Asian and minority ethnic, LGBT+ and young people. A fair justice system should have representation from as many communities and minority groups as possible.
How long have you been a Magistrates’ Association (MA) member and why did you apply to join?
I joined once I was sworn in and have benefited from useful webinars on aspects of the work, sharing experiences with fellow newbies, and the magazine and website—they’re all helpful.
What do you value most about your membership?
Reading an article about the streamlining of search warrant applications made me think that for all the challenges of working in the criminal justice system, aspects are developing, and magistrates and the MA are active agents in that change.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
I’m about to do my threshold appraisal and am doing observations to apply to sit as a family magistrate as well. I’m grateful for the role and would recommend to anyone interested to go and observe in a court. If any doubt, that just might give you the impetus you need to apply.