Guidelines For Character References For Court
A character reference is a letter written and addressed to the court in support of a defendant who has been charged in criminal proceedings.
The Purpose Of A Character Reference
A character reference should aim to provide the court with a greater insight into the defendant’s personal circumstances, and to address the defendant’s attributes.
This helps the court to gain an impression of the offender and also address the question of who the defendant is in the context of the offending. Character references are an important aspect of a sentencing hearings and serve as a valuable tool in a helping a client achieve the best possible result.
Who Can Give You A Character Reference?
There is a common misconception that family and friends cannot give character reference material. However, this is not true.
The best character references come from those who know you well and therefore, are in a position to write about you as a person.
This could be family members, friends, work colleagues and employers (present and past).
How To Write A Character Reference For Court In Australia
Here we explain the structure of a character reference and the issues that should be addressed.
While there is no one set of rules as to how a character reference should be structured and what issues should be addressed, some general rules and guidelines do apply.
The following points provide a broad guide for a referee to follow when writing a character reference for a defendant.
If applicable use a letterhead. If you have an official letterhead because you run your own business or you work for a company then, if you are permitted, place the character reference on the letterhead. A letterhead gives the court a better understanding about who the writer is and what their position is in the community.
2. Have the letter typed
This will enable the court to read the reference without difficulty and without the lack of legibility that a hand written reference may have.
3. Address the letter to the appropriate person
It is important to address a character reference correctly. It tells the Magistrate or Judge that you know that it is not just a general character reference but a reference that is aimed specifically for the court.
If the matter is being heard in the Magistrates’ Court the character reference should be headed “To the Sentencing Magistrate”. If the matter is being heard in the District Court the reference should be headed “To the Sentencing Judge”.
Any further references to the Magistrate or Judge should read “Your Honour”.
Use the name of the person that you are writing about as a heading to the reference.
5. State who you are
Also state your occupation and qualifications. Then state what your relationship is with the defendant and how long you have known them for. Informing the court about the length of time that you have known the defendant demonstrates the level of insight that you have into the defendant’s background and behaviour. It is of limited use if the writer has only known the defendant for a week or a month.
The best character references come from people who know the offender well such as close friends, family members or work colleagues. Generally it’s these people that are able to properly inform the court the level of remorse that the offender has shown and the impact that the offending has had on them.
Include details of any detrimental consequences the offender will experience as a result of the conviction. This all helps to show to the court who the offender truly is and in a way that a lawyer often is unable to communicate to the court.
6. The facts of the offence
State that you are aware of what the charges are and what the facts of the offence involve. This does not have to be the specific allegations all written out. It can just be something like “I understand that Mr X has been charged with stealing $1000 from his employer”. The sentencing Judge then knows that the writer knows what the reference is for. There is no point tendering a character reference that does not do this.
7. Similar offences
If the defendant has similar offences recorded the writer should say that they are aware of those similar offences and what, if anything, the offender has done to address the causes behind the offending and steps that they are taking to limit the risk of offending again in the same way. It is concerning to the court if a reference does not adequately reflect a situation because the offender has not told the referee about their prior history of similar offending. Otherwise if you believe the offence was a one off isolated incident which is unlikely to occur again then you should say so.
8. Your opinion
State your opinion of the person and be specific. If the reference is general in nature it will depreciate in value. So for example if the writer is saying that they think the offender is a kind and caring person they should also state what it is about the person that makes them that way. For example do they do any voluntary work? Do they help look after sick people? Are they the coach of the junior footy team? Are they a good father?
A character reference for court is all about providing context to a person’s life. So state what qualities the defendant possesses and what you would want to tell the Judge about the defendant if you were actually having a conversation with them.
9. Character traits
Comment on the specific character traits relevant to the offences. For example if the charge is stealing you should note whether you have previously known the defendant to be honest or trust worthy.
10. Don’t suggest a penalty
Judges and Magistrates are likely to be annoyed by people who don’t understand the full details of the case or the rules of sentencing telling them what to do. Just mention the positives about the defendant and leave it to the lawyer to make the submission on sentencing.
11. Other matters
Include any other matters that are considered to be relevant.
12. Sign and date
Clearly sign and date the character reference and include your contact details. The reference will be worthless unless these things are done.
Summary Of What To Include In A Character Reference:
- If you are the owner of a business you should use your letterhead.
- Address the reference to “The Court” using “Dear Sir/Madam”.
- Use the name of the person who you are writing about as a heading to the reference.
- Start reference by stating who you are and your occupation.
- Next state what your relationship is with the person and how long you have known them for.
- State that you are aware of what the person has been charged with and write out the charge(s). Include the facts involved e.g. “I understand that Mr X has been charged with stealing $1,000.00 from his employer.”
- State your opinion of the person generally and also comment on the specific character traits relevant to the offences. For example, if the charge is stealing you should note whether you have previously known the person to be honest or trustworthy (or not).
- Include any information about the person’s involvement in community groups or volunteer work.
- Sign the reference, print your name (and your position if it is a reference on letterhead), your phone number and the date.
Summary Of What Not To Include In A Character Reference:
- Any comment on what you think the appropriate penalty should be.
- Irrelevant information.
- If the person has committed other similar offences in the past, don't include a statement that the offence is 'out of character' or that they will not offend again.
- Any comment about the law, the police or the role of the court.
- Any statement that you know is false or do not agree with.
Other Tips on Character References
Always be completely truthful in character references. There is nothing more concerning than the tendering of a character reference which is shown to be untruthful or deceiving. It is a criminal offence to deceive the court and doing so may result in serious consequences to the writer.
Get the References to the Lawyer Early
Get the references to your criminal lawyer early to allow them to consider them and determine whether there are matters which require further clarification or need to be expand upon.
We Can Help
If you or someone you know is charged with an offence and you are not sure about what is involved in writing a character reference, we can help. Andrew Williams is an experienced criminal lawyer who takes the responsibility of representing the interests of accused persons very seriously. Call the Law Offices of Andrew Williams today on 08 9278 2575 or send Andrew a message.
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- 8 Reasons Why You Should Use a Criminal Lawyer
- 3 Questions to Ask a Potential Criminal Lawyer
- First Appointment With a Criminal Lawyer
PLEASE NOTE: The material in this blog post is for informational use only and should not be construed as legal advice. For answers to your questions regarding this or other topics, please contact a professional legal representative.