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Character references in court proceedings can be some of the most important evidence for defending a case. If you have been asked to provide a written character reference for a defendant, there are some important things you need to know about writing a good reference.

A character reference must raise points that specifically address the issues at hand, and shows the Court, who the defendant is as a person. For example, a character reference about a person’s positive contribution to the community in the past and recent changes they have made to their life can bear on the sentence a defendant receives.

Who Should Be A Referee?

A character referee can be anyone. However, it is much more useful if they have known the defendant for a significant amount of time, and can provide details about their character which support the issues raised by the defendant’s lawyer. A referee can be a spouse, another family member, work colleague or friend. Such people often have a deeper understanding of who the defendant is as a person.

What To Include In The Reference?

1. Background to your relationship with the defendant

It is important that you can demonstrate you have a genuine relationship with the defendant, and if relevant that you have a prominent position. Things to include here are:

  • who you are and what job you have;
  • how long you have known the defendant;
  • how you came to know them; and
  • how often you see them.

2. Awareness of current and past offences

Here you should specify the offences or type of offences for which the defendant is charged (without including too many details). For example “I am aware that John Smith is pleading guilty to fraud”. Your reference may not be given much weight by a magistrate or judge if it looks as though you don’t know what the charges are. Noting down the offences will also help to work out what statements you should make that will support the defence.
You should also show an awareness of any past offences, as relevant. Simply stating that an action of the defendant is out of character will not hold much weight, and even more so if it looks like you have no idea of their past offences.

For example, you could preface a statement with “Despite John Smith’s previous driving offence in 2011, I firmly believe…” If you are aware that the defendant has also taken steps to show their remorse, you should identify those steps and relate it back to your honest opinion of the defendant’s good character.

3. Personal opinion of their character

Here you must honestly say what you think of the defendant’s character. If you think their actions are out of character, point to reasons why this is the case. Also identify their reputation within their community, to the best of your knowledge, and justify this with references to how they contribute positively to their community. For example, they may volunteer at community sport on the weekend.

If you are writing in a capacity as a work colleague or employer, it is also beneficial to comment on their performance at work and their attitude and behaviour in the work place. You should also mention how any absence or conviction will affect their prospects of continued employment.

4. Knowledge of their personal life

In this section, you should address the defendant’s background and any hardship they have experienced, whether it be financial strife, a divorce, alcoholism, etc. In particular, any experiences that may have influenced the choices they made leading up to the offence. If you are aware of any steps they have taken to address these personal problems, you should note this too and relate it back to your opinion of their character.

What Not To Include In A Character Reference

There are a few things that should not be included in a character reference, as they can cause much more harm than good. This include:

  • Anything that is not true. Misleading the court is a punishable offence.
  • Any suggestion of what penalty should be imposed.
  • Any opinion of the law, or of any other party to the proceeding.
  • Any requests or submissions.

Format of Reference

The character reference should be in the form of a letter, typed, and if possible on a letterhead with the date in the top right-hand corner. You should address the letter to either “The Presiding Magistrate” if the matter is in the Local Court, and include the court location, or “The Presiding Judge” if the matter is in a District, County or Supreme Court.

You should not write “Dear Sir or Madam” when addressing the magistrate or judge, instead, write “Your Honour”, and include this title throughout as required.
Make sure that you sign the letter and include your contact number, should you need to be contacted about the contents of the reference.

Key Takeaways

If you are unsure about writing a character reference, it is always best to clarify your intended statements with the defendant’s lawyer. While they cannot write the reference for you, they can discuss the reference with you, and point out if you are making statements that don’t help the case, or if any statements are unclear or not well supported. Give us a call on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page if you have any questions.


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