Guidelines For Character References
A character reference is a letter written and addressed to the court in support of a defendant in criminal proceedings.
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 hearing and serve as a valuable tool in a helping a client achieve the best possible result.
The structure of a character reference and the issues that should be addressed
There is no one set of rules as to how a character reference should be structured and what issues should be addressed but some general rules do apply.
The following points provide a broad guide for a referee to follow when writing a character reference..
- If applicable use a letter head. If you have an official letter head because you run your own business or you work for a company then, if you are permitted, place the character reference on the letter head. A letter head gives the court a better understanding about who the writer is and what their position is in the community.
- 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.
- 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.
- Start of by stating who you are. 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.
- 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.
- 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 one off isolated incident which is unlikely to occur again the you should say so.
- 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.
- 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.
- Don’t suggest what penalty the defendant should receive. 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.
- Include any other matters that are considered to be relevant.
- Sign and date the character reference and include your contact details. The reference will be worthless unless these things are done.
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 lawyer early to allow the criminal lawyer 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 9278 2575 or send Andrew a message.