What is a Character Reference for Court?
A character reference letter is a document used in court proceedings to portray the positive aspects of a person who is charged with an offence. It helps give the magistrate or judge a good idea of who the person is, what they are like, and their history. By providing positive aspects of the person’s character, as well as a background of the circumstances and situation in which they are a part of, it may humanise and give a well-rounded picture of the person and potentially put their alleged crime into perspective.
These documents do not have to be provided by anyone in particular, as long as it is someone who knows the accused well. Character references can be helpful in defence cases, particularly if it is a mild crime or it is the person’s first offence.
How Character References Can Help
Character references give the sentencing authority insight into the accused’s personality, contribution to society and overall positive attributes. While there is some disagreement amongst lawyers regarding how much stead judges and magistrates put into these references, it is better to have a character reference than to have no one vouching for the accused at all.
These letters are a good way to introduce the accused’s good qualities, law-abiding history and community activity into the court case via a trusted third party.
Who Can Write a Character Reference for Court?
Character references can often come from a spouse/partner, friend, colleague, employer or a neighbour. Their main aim is to paint a positive picture and provide some useful information and insight into the character and behaviour of the accused, so that he or she is not judged only on the basis of the charge against them.
A character reference letter can theoretically be written by anyone who knows the person, however the most useful are those who come from people who know them very well. The most persuasive character references generally come from friends, family, family friends, employers, colleagues and associates. The people best equipped to talk about someone’s character are the people who socialise with them and understand them and how they behave.
We should also note that the best character reference comes from people who are not only staples in the other person’s life, but also law-abiding, and are established as having good character and positive attributes.
What Should Be Included in a Character Reference
These documents, while important, are fairly simple to write as long as you know what to include. A character reference, which is also known as a character witness statement, is always formally addressed to the official overseeing the trial (the judge or magistrate) and must be neatly and legibly typed out. It must also be signed, dated, and, if possible, printed with an official letterhead if on behalf of a company or organisation. There is a general structure and vital information which are expected of an effective character reference, and these are laid out below.
A formal and polite address
The character reference must be addressed to the official overseeing the case. Be aware that who the letter is sentenced to will depend on what court the matter is being heard in. For example, a character reference heard in Local Court (or magistrates court) will be addressed to a magistrate, like so: “To the Sentencing Magistrate”. If the case is being tried in the District Court, the character reference will be addressed to the judge overseeing the case e.g. “To the Sentencing Judge”. If the case is being tried in the Supreme Court, you would refer to the “Chief Justice”.
Also be sure to refer to the recipient of the character reference as “Your Honour”, rather than “whom it may concern”, or gendered language like “sir” or “ma’am”.
Your relationship and history with the person
A character reference is commonly provided by a spouse, family member or close friend. It must come from someone who knows the person well and has insight into their behaviour, personality and character. Make sure you are specific about your relationship and include insights into their background, their lives, their behaviour and include any positive information or anecdotes about them which might help humanise them. Examples of this could be that they coach their child’s sports team, contribute to charity or run the local trivia tournament. Including within your character reference the accused’s ties to the community and social activity is also looked upon favourably.
Make sure you also provide positive, completely truthful information about that relationship, how they have treated you or others, what they do for the community and anything else that could help paint a more favourable picture of them. Again, we do not suggest you lie, bend or manipulate the truth. Simply acknowledge their redeemable and positive characteristics and behaviour.
State your awareness of the charges
It is important to confer with the person charged and their legal team before writing and submitting your character reference. It would be inadvisable to have a character reference state an offence was out of character if they had been charged or convicted of similar crimes in the past. Make sure you note if it is the person’s first offence, as this is usually looked upon favourably in criminal proceedings.
State whether they have expressed remorse
Remorse is always looked upon favourably, particularly if the criminal behaviour exhibited is out of character. If you have noticed a depression, anxiety, contrition, remorse or changed behaviour in them since their alleged crime and charge, you should state this observation in the character reference.
Add personal circumstances which may have contributed
As a character reference, you should know the person very well. This means you may have insight into the way they think, their personal lives and their behaviour. While personal circumstances are not an excuse to break the law, they can humanise the person and invoke sympathy from the judge or magistrate. For instance, if the person is dealing with ongoing mental health issues, stress, a break up or was late or flustered, these may help rationalise why the person acted out of character.
If you feel you do not possess the skills to write an adequate court character reference, you can model a sample character reference letter from Law Access NSW. These templates give you a good idea of the general structure of a character reference and allow for you to personalise yours for the person in question.
What to Include for Specific Offences
General character reference letters are usually adequate, but they can also be tweaked and focused for someone’s need when they are facing a particular charge.
An assault charge can carry serious penalties, however they are also often subject to circumstance. If a person is charged with assault or domestic violence, but you know this to be out of character for them and that they do not have similar offences, then your character reference letter may focus predominantly on their gentle nature and lack of violence since knowing them. You can then go on to mention times where they showed restraint and perhaps offer some insight into what may have been different on the occasion in question. If it is a first time offence and there were extenuating circumstances, such as the protection of oneself or others, a character reference may go a long way in the person’s defence.
While there are various drug offences charges, many of them can lead to heavy fines, community service or prison sentences. Because they are looked upon so seriously, a character reference may help put the charge into perspective for the judge or magistrate. Again, by stating that the drug offence is out of the person’s character, or that there were extenuating circumstances like mental health problems or external factors like poverty, stress or marital breakdown, it may help influence the judge’s opinion.
Whether it is a first offence or not, you may also include the person’s openness to, or attempts at rehabilitation if applicable. Judges and magistrates look favourably upon people trying to better themselves or seek personal support to get help for addiction.
Traffic offences can vary in degrees of severity, from simple speeding violations to negligent driving offences occasioning harm or death. Unfortunately, car accidents and traffic offences are very common and can result in court dates, fines and potentially more severe punishments for charges like drink driving. It is up to you to use your judgement regarding the nature of the traffic offences. It is unlikely that a character reference will carry much weight if the person has a history of drink driving or similar offences, however if it is a first offence or happened due to being late to something important, it may help.
In these cases in particular, it may be helpful to mention within the character reference that this person is not only a safe and cautious driver, but that they need their licence for work so they can support themselves and others. This may influence a judge to show leniency, although it will depend on the nature and severity of the crime.
What Not to Include in Court Character Reference
Judges joke that they have “never read a bad character reference”. But this is not entirely true. When writing a character reference, you should ensure it is addressed to the overseeing judge or magistrate of the accused’s case and should include only information about the person in question. It should not refer to the case in question and must not include any information that is deceptive or incorrect.
A character reference is a legal document which is being submitted to a member of the legal institution, so it must be accurate. Lying or misrepresenting the facts will only undermine the person’s case when all the facts come out in court. There are several common errors that people make when submitting a character reference, so avoid including the following within your information.
- Do not criticise the law or legal system
- Do not plead with the court for mercy or leniency
- Do not provide false or misleading information
- Do not offer a suggested punishment
- Antagonisation of any kind
A character reference is simply a letter highlighting the good qualities about the person in question. You do not need to appeal to the heart of the sentencing magistrate or judge, or submit a rousing speech or offer legal counsel. Simply state the positive things about the person, their character and their behaviour in a polite and succinct manner.
Where Do You Send Your Character Reference Letter
Although the court character reference letter is addressed to the judge or magistrate, you do not need to send your letter anywhere official like a court. Once your letter is completed, you can simply send it or deliver it to the accused’s acting lawyer and they will provide it to the judge on your behalf.
When Should You Send the Letter
As soon as possible. The earlier you get the reference to the lawyer, the sooner they can analyse it and determine whether certain points may need more clarification, expansion or editing. When writing a character reference for an upcoming court date, you should do so with a moderate level of urgency as the legal defence strategy needs to be prepared well before the actual court date.
Expert Legal Help with LY Lawyers
We are dedicated to our clients and offer advice and legal support. If you or someone you know are accused of committing a crime it is important to seek professional support from an experienced criminal lawyer so you know your options. If you need help drafting or acquiring character references, we can also assist in this matter. Get in contact with LY Lawyers Ltd Ptd today and find out what we can do for you.
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