how to draft a character reference

What is a character reference and is it important?

A character reference is a letter to the court from a respectable member of society, who knows you and is willing to provide the court with evidence of your good character. Character references are important because they show the court that other people view you as a good member of society. These references give an insight to a magistrate or judge that your good qualities outlined in your testimonial outweigh the negative perceptions created through your criminal act. If the magistrate or judge takes the references into account in relation to your good character, they may potentially order a more lenient penalty for you.

Creating quality character references

Who makes a good character referee?

A person who has known you for an extended period of time and has reputable standing in the community makes for a good character referee. For example:

    Current or past employers
    Family friends
    Your family GP
    Team member of any social, political, sporting, religious, community or other groups
As a general rule, close family members will not be objective enough to provide a character evidence that will carry significant weight and should be avoided unless there are no other options.

Who does not make a good character referee?

    a person who has a bad reputation in society
    a co-accused (person who has aided you in your criminal act)

When do you need a character reference?

If you plead or are found guilty of an offence, you will benefit from having one or more character references at your sentencing hearing. The references will be considered by the magistrate or judge when determining the appropriate sentence. It is important to give your character references to your solicitor as soon as possible so they can examine the reference and referee before your sentencing hearing.

When should you submit your character references?

You should give your solicitor your character references well before your sentencing hearing so they can be examined adequately. Your solicitor may:

    keep and submit the character reference if it aids your case;
    ask you to get another person to be your character referee;
    ask your original character referees to add additional details about your good character; or
    discard the character reference if it is not going to help your case.
If you do not have a solicitor representing you in your criminal matter, the testimonials should be ready to give to a magistrate or judge before your sentence is decided on. N/B- when submitting your character references, you should:
    give the original character reference to the court;
    show the character reference to the prosecutor; and
    keep a copy of the the character reference for your own reference.

Important tips when writing a character reference

Formatting your character reference

Your referee should address the character reference "To the Presiding Magistrate" if the court is a Local Court, or "The Presiding Judge" if the court is a District or Supreme Court. Your referee should not address the reference by using a generic addressee such as 'to whom it may concern' as the magistrate or judge may suspect that the referee is ignorant as to the purpose of the reference. The referee should properly identify themselves by stating their name, address and occupation, as well as clearly explaining the nature of their relationship to you. The reference should be typed and free from spelling errors, signed and dated.

Make sure each character reference:

    - is a reflection of your character referee's honest belief of your character;
    - is recent and acknowledges the specific circumstances of your case (i.e. the nature of the charges and whether you have pleaded guilty for a specific offence);
    - includes how long your referee has known you for, and what standing they have in the community;
    - outlines in what capacity your referee knows you (e.g. as an employer, workmate, priest, teacher, team member, family friend, flatmate, etc);
    - contains specific positive examples of your good behaviour and character in society (i.e. your charitable nature based on your volunteer activities).

Do not include in a character reference:

    - opinions on law and policy;
    - opinions on the appropriate penalty or sentence that you should receive;
    - misleading information about your case (i.e. that you have not committed a similar offence in the past, if you have actually done so);
      - criticism of the police or the victim;
      - comments that you are innocent of the offence (because character references are used after you have either pleaded guilty or have been found guilty of the offence); and
      - irrelevant or useless information.

    Depending on your personal circumstances, it may be beneficial for your character reference to: state that your offending was 'out of character', especially if you have not committed any criminal offence in the past or

      - have not committed a criminal offence of the same manner before;
      - outline any difficulties that your referee may be aware of that you may incur as a result of your conviction (for example, the loss of your driver's licence may mean that you are not able to undertake certain work duties and will result in the termination of your employment);
      - include observations of your remorse for what you have done;
      - state any personal circumstances that may have led to you committing the offence.
      - identify anything else which might assist the court concerning your charges.