Character references are very important in the Court process. They are fairly standard across the various Australian jurisdictions
A character reference that is used for legal purposes needs to be clear and specific. It must be written to appeal to the court and be able to persuade a judge on specific issues regarding your case.
There can be no one character reference that fits all. An ideal character reference for a sex offender covers different points than those covered for a traffic offence. However, writing any type of character reference generally adheres to the same fundamental principles. The goal is always to present to the court the genuine character of the accused.
Character Reference and the Referee
Choosing a referee is an important consideration for your character reference. This person must be able to provide details that support the issues presented by your defence lawyer before a judge. For example, one may attest to your good relationships with community members, or about your exemplary character and performance at work. A referee may also point out your great necessity for something which may otherwise be taken away should a specific criminal penalty be imposed (eg. licence suspension).
Your referee does not have to be a prominent person. Family members, friends, or co-employees are all allowed to provide a character reference. Their accounts are always given great consideration by magistrates especially given that they can provide a deeper insight into the accused – something that even exceptional lawyers may not be as effectively able to convey.
Guidelines in Writing a Character Reference for Court
1. Address the character reference to the right person. A referee must know which court will hear the defendant’s case to be able to properly address the character reference. It is important that the document be specific in order to show to a judge that it is not a mere general character reference, but a document written specifically for the accused for a particular offence. In Victoria, if the case is to be heard in the Magistrates’ Court, the character reference should be addressed “To the Sentencing Magistrate”. If the matter is to be heard in the County Court, then it should be addressed “To the Sentencing Judge”.
2. Show that you are aware of the offence the defendant is pleading guilty to. There is no point testifying for someone on issues related to something that you do not know about. If you are not aware of the criminal charge in question, how will you be able to provide relevant details? This does not mean though that you have to list down all the specific offences or terms involved. It can be a simple or general statement such as “I know that John Doe is pleading guilty to violence offences” or “has hurt someone”. This will show the judge that you are aware of the crime committed by the accused. Often Judges will reject character references unless they indicate the referee knows the detail of the crime.
Things to Remember:
a. Assault Charge – if the character reference is for someone pleading guilty to an assault charge, it is important to touch on the person’s character relating to violence. Is the accused normally violent? Or was the offence just a rare or even better a one-time incident?
b. Drink Driving Charge – the character reference must cover issues related to drinking. Is the defendant striving to be responsible with their alcohol intake? Is the accused aware that driving under the influence of alcohol is never a good practice?
c. Drugs Charge – courts always consider treatment and rehabilitation for drug offences. Hence, it is important for the character reference to mention whether the accused is persevering to stop drug use. Or was it just a one-time incident?
d. Dishonesty Charge – the accused may have been going through financial difficulties and now completely regrets committing the offence. Have the goods stolen already been given back? The character reference should inform the judge about these details.
3. Be cautious in discussing any similar offence committed by the defendant in the past. A character reference should never state that the charge is “out of character” if the accused has already committed the same offence before. That previous offence has a strong impact on the character of the defendant; therefore, a character reference made to emphasize on the point of charge being “out of character” will be of no value to the judge. Be sure to know the facts relayed to the judge before you discuss things in detail.
If the accused has never been charged with a criminal offence before, it is highly crucial that this be emphasized in the character reference. Any person with a clean record and who is known to have led a responsible way of life is always likely to be favored by the court. Character references should point out the importance of defendants to the community and their positive relationships with other people.
4. State how long you have known the person. This will add weight to the details of the character reference. If you have known the defendant long enough, the judge can have more trust in your statements pertaining to the defendant’s character. This also means that you have been able to observe the accused for a long time and can rightfully vouch for changes or efforts to improve behavior and lifestyle.
5. Include specific details. The court can have a better and more vivid understanding of the defendant’s natural character if the character reference provides specific details. For example, instead of saying “I have known John to be a very good person and an upright citizen”, you may cite incidents that show how John is a very good person and an upright citizen. You can narrate specific things like “I can always count on John to babysit my children on weekends when I go to work” or “John is the most reliable person to contact when some teens are found fighting in the neighborhood”, etc. If you want the judge to really get to know the defendant, make sure you provide details on the character reference that will make that possible.
6. State your relationship with the accused. This is another factor that adds reliability to the character reference. Whether you are a family member, friend, employer, etc., this must always be accurately reflected on the character reference. Never lie on the character reference – in this aspect or in any other areas of the document – as this will totally discredit whatever information you’d like to share regarding the defendant.
a. Family Member – a family member can give a valuable insight into the character of a person. Since you likely have the closest relationship with the accused, you can share details that may explain why the defendant was able to commit the offence. For example, “John was very friendly and peaceable as a child. I have seen him suffer the consequences of our family problems as a teenager, and it was then when he started having problems dealing with people.” The character reference must also state whether the family will continue to support the defendant – “ We have always loved John and will continue to love him and support him in every way we can.”
b. Employer – employment is always a great consideration for the court. If you are the defendant’s employer, you should include in the character reference the length of time the defendant has been employed and for what job position, including some of their duties and responsibilities whenever appropriate. You should state how a sentence may affect the defendant’s employment. Will you continue to hire the accused if there is a gaol term that must be served for a specific period? What about if the driving licence of the defendant is suspended – can the job responsibilities still be performed? You must also give details on the defendant’s attitude at work and relationship with workmates. A character reference from an employer is highly regarded by courts.
c. Friend – friends can give the courts a familiarity with the accused. When writing a character reference for friends, show how well you know them, that you are really friends with them, and mention how they are with other people outside home. This will establish how the defendant handles social relationships with non-family members and will provide the court with more knowledge about the accused.
d. Other – you could give a character reference for an individual no matter who you are to them as long as there is a relationship. Explain how well or how long you have known the defendant. If you have just met the accused, be truthful and mention this on the character reference along with your reason for wanting to attest to the character of the defendant.
7. State your opinion of the defendant’s personality. Apart from facts to support the details on the character reference, your opinions of the defendant’s personality are also highly valuable. How do you personally find the defendant? You should mention things about the accused that you would very much like tell the judge face-to-face.
8. Include positive aspects of the defendant’s character, attitude, activities, etc. Every person has good or redeeming qualities. In the character reference, focus on the defendant’s positive qualities and build up a picture for the judge. Does the accused engage in some form of non-profit activities? Is the defendant valuable to the people in the community? All these things can be made known to the judge via the character reference.
9. For driving charges, mention the personal consequences of losing a licence. This is very important and carries a great weight especially if coming from an employer. If the defendant is likely to lose employment due to licence suspension, then the court must be notified about this. For example, “a licence is a primary requirement for John to fulfill his duties. We will have to sack John if he loses his licence.” The character reference should explain to a judge the consequences of a criminal penalty – personal or otherwise.
10. Add all other relevant details. Anything that might help a defendant’s case must be included in the character reference. However, be careful that all the details that you want to point out are properly worded. Consult with the defendant’s lawyer to make sure that the character reference outlines what it has to establish in court. You could end up emphasizing issues that are far removed from what the defence lawyer thinks will help the case.
11. Ensure the reference is signed and dated. Any character reference must be signed and dated. This will show how up to date – and therefore how relevant – the document is. It should also have your contact details. This is important for the Judge or Magistrate as it lends more credence and will assure them that any clarification can be easily addressed should they have questions regarding the character reference.
12. Have the reference checked by the defendant’s lawyer as early as possible. Since the defendant’s lawyer has the primary duty of defending the accused before a judge, it will be wise to show the character reference to the lawyer before sending it to the court. This may give the defence lawyer crucial information about his client that will be of tremendous benefit to the case.
13. You may submit as many character references as you can get. In fact, the more choices you have, the better it can be for a case. A defence lawyer can always go through all the character references and pick the ones that will be most helpful to the case.
14. Do not suggest what penalty the defendant should get. That is the Judge’s decision and while they appreciate your assessment of the defendant they do not like being told what penalty to give. Stick to giving positive details about the defendant as this is the main purpose of the character reference.
15. If possible, use a business letterhead. This will, right away, show the judge that the referee is employed and immediately gives weight to content of the character reference.
16. If possible attend Court. It is always useful for a lawyer to be able to hand up a reference and then point to a person in Court and say “They can give evidence if necessary.” In the lower Courts they very rarely get people to give evidence but in the County or Supreme they may allow someone to get up and speak.
To read further about character references and to get free examples of templates of character references click on the following link character reference template.