When writing a character reference for Court or writing a character reference for a Judge or Magistrate, it is important to be very clear. Writing a character reference for someone who has been charged with drink driving is very different to writing a character reference for someone charged with a sex offence.
We get asked so often about character references by our clients that we have created an easy-to-follow reference guide for writing a character reference that take into account the specific circumstances.
Where to start?
Firstly, you need to establish the following important points:
- What is the charge?
- Is this a first offence?
- Who is providing the character reference?
The following guidelines will explain you what you should and should not write in a letter to the Court.
The referee needs to address the issues that we are trying to emphasize - ie. the good work history, the need for a driving licence, the positive changes in a person's life since they got in trouble, etc.
A character reference letter from Court does not have to be from an "important" person. It can be from the accused's wife, child, friend or emplyer or work friend.
It is a document that can be from any one who has something positive or useful to say. Why Judges and Magistrates give weight to them is that they are a more direct view of what a person is like. Often they capture what a person is really like in a way that your lawyer, no matter how good, can not explain.
These sample character references will help you to show the Judge or Magistrate what the accused is really like.
More detailed Guideline to writing a character reference letter for Court
1. The character reference for Court should be addressed
"To the Sentencing Magistrate" or "To the Sentencing Judge". Who the character reference is addressed to depends on which Court the defendant is going to. If the matter is in Victoria in the Magistrates' Court the character reference should be headed "To the Sentencing Magistrate". If it is in the County Court, it should be headed "To the Sentencing Judge". 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 and is aimed specifically at them.
2. Show that you know what charges the Defendant is pleading guilty to.
This does not have to be the specific charges written out. It can be a general statement such as "I know John Smith is pleading guilty to drink driving" or "theft charges" or whatever it may be. The Judge then knows that you know what the reference is for. There is no point turning up with a character reference that does not do this. The Judge will just say "What's this worth if they don't know John has been drink driving again?".
a. If the Defendant is pleading guilty to assault charges.
A general statement such as "I know John Smith is pleading guilty to assault charges" or "hurting someone" or whatever it may be will show the Judge that you know what the reference is for. It is important with assault charges to give some indication of whether they are generally a violent person or whether this is a one off incident.
b. If the Defendant is pleading guilty to drink driving charges.
A general statement such as "I know John Smith is pleading guilty to drink driving charges" or "driving under the influence" or whatever it may be will show the Judge that you know what the reference is for. It is important with drink driving charges to give some indication of whether you know that they have been drinking less since they were caught and whether they have told you that they know that drinking and driving was a stupid and dangerous thing to do.
c. If the Defendant is pleading guilty to drugs charges.
A general statement such as "I know John Smith is pleading guilty to possessing marijuana" or "drugs charges " or whatever it may be will show the Judge that you know what the reference is for. It is important with drug charges to give some indication of whether you know that they have been trying to stop using drugs or whether it was a one off situation. Most Courts place a lot of emphasis on people trying to rehabilitate. That is the Court wants to know that the person is trying their best to do the right thing and not commit any further offences.
d. If the Defendant is pleading guilty to dishonesty charges.
A general statement such as "I know John Smith is pleading guilty to theft of a mobile phone" or "stealing charges " or whatever it may be will show the Judge that you know what the reference is for. It is important with dishonesty charges to give some indication of whether you know that they have had financial difficulties and that has been the reason they were stealing. It is also very important if you can indicate that you know they have paid back the value or the money that they have taken. That the defendant has told you they are very sorry for what they have done is very important as well.
3. Find out if the person has been in trouble for this offence before.
There is no point giving us a character reference for Court that says this is "out of character" if they have done it before. We would not use a character reference like this as it would be dismissed as worthless. Be careful discussing the facts of the case in detail unless you have seen the summary of facts being read to the Judge.
a. If the person has not been in trouble before this offence.
It is a very important feature of a case if a person has not been in trouble before. A civilian should be able to rely on their good character to get a better outcome from the Court. You should be emphasizing that they have never been in trouble before and that they have always lead a very positive lifestyle. That they are generally well regarded in the community is important as well i.e. "John is well known and much liked by everyone at the cricket club".
4. How long you have known the person.
This is a useful thing to put in a reference as it shows that they have known you long enough to see a change in you. eg "I have known John since he was 15 and first started mowing my lawns. He has been through a tough time and I have seen him mature greatly over the last 6 months."
5. Include detail in the character reference.
It is very important to explain in detail about the person you are writing the character reference for. An example of this is that a person might say "I have known John for 2 years and is a kind person." Or much better they might say "I have known John for 2 years since he first started helping my disabled son who is his neighbour. He constantly helps my son out in many ways and so I have had regular contact with him. He is very generous with his time and I am proud to say I know him as he is one of the kindest people I have met". Remember the Judge does not know the defendant and they rely on the lawyers and documents such as character references to explain who they are.
6. How you came to meet them.
Again this is information that is useful in assessing how much weight to give to a character reference. You should always be completely truthful in character references. There is nothing worse for a person than to hand up a character reference and it be shown to be untruthful.
a. Relationship with the accused - Family member
Being a family member is an important perspective of a person. "I have known John since he was a baby and he was always a happy child. I saw the troubles that he started having when he was a teenager and he became isolated from his family." It is also important to indicate whether you will be giving him ongoing support - "We love John and we will provide him with whatever help we can."
b. Relationship with the accused - Employer
A person being employed and having ongoing work is very important to the Court. As an employer you should say how long you have employed the person for and what their job is. You should indicate whether you can keep employing them if they lose their licence or if appropriate to the case they have to go to prison for a short time . It is very important that your reference is on letterhead. Also describe some of their attributes. Are they hardworking? Do they help their fellow employees? etc. Being an employer is an extremely important reference and perspective of a person.
c. Relationship with the accused - Friend
Being a friend is important as it indicates a good familiarity with a person. "I have known John for 10 years since we meet playing football together. He has always been a kind friend and has made an effort to help me whenever i have had problems." Give information about them that shows that you know them and are their friend. Good character references grab the attention of the Judge.
d. Relationship with the accused - Other
It is important to explain what your relationship to the accused is. If you have just meet them say so. If you have known them a long time but are not their friend then explain why you are writing a reference on their behalf. This is information that is useful in assessing how much weight to give to a character reference.
7. Your opinion of the defendant's personality.
What do you truly think of the defendant? What qualities do they have that you would want to tell the Judge about if you were having a conversation with him.
8. Any positive things that you can say about their behaviour, activities etc.
Do they do any voluntary work? Do they help look after sick people? Are they the coach of the junior footy team? A character reference for Court is all about giving a context to a persons life. Everyone has some good qualities. It is important to explain them to the Judge.
9. Is it is a driving charge and they will lose their job if they lose their licence?
Make sure you mention that! Especially if you are their employer. Be frank and tell it like it is. "Time's are tough at our work and if John does not have his licence then we will try to keep him but it is very likely we will have to let him go." A character reference is often useful when it spells out what consequences (outside of Court) are going to occur to the defendant. "He will not be able to drive his kid's to the soccer games on the weekend and as I work I can not do it either." The main penalties people have from losing their licence are personal. It is very hard for most drivers to lose their licence. Spell that out to the Judge.
10. Anything else they think is relevant.
Again this is your chance to say something positive about the defendant. If you write it and give it to the lawyers early then they will have time to ask you to change it if what you are saying would not help or is awkwardly drafted. An example being you might be focusing on their sickness whereas the lawyer wants you to focus on their attempts to get work.
11. Be signed and dated.
It is important that it is signed and dated so that the Judge can know that it was prepared for this case. Also you can put a contact phone number on the reference. This gives the lawyer the ability to say to the Prosecutor "Give them a ring and check what they have written if you want to."
12. Get the character references to the lawyer early.
It is always useful to get references to the lawyer well before Court as it may alert them to useful information about their client. They serve an important purpose as they can often convey what a person is like to a Court in a way a lawyer can not.
13. How many character references should you get?
There is no magic number of character references that you should get. The more character references that you get generally the better. Your lawyer can always just choose the ones they want to use.
14. Do not suggest what penalty they should get.
Don't fall into the trap of saying what penalty they should get. Judges get annoyed by people who do not know all the details of the case or the rules of sentencing telling them what to do. Just say the positives about the defendant in the character reference and leave it to the lawyer to make the submission on sentencing.
15. If you have any questions about what you are writing and we act for the accused then ring us.
We will be willing to answer your questions as your reference is going to help our client.
16. If you can put the character reference on letterhead do so.
It is much better to have a character reference that is on a letterhead from a business. It shows that the person who is giving the character reference is employed and can give weight to what they are writing.
Have further questions? Call our lawyers in Melbourne, Broadmeadows, Heidelberg, Sunshine, or Moorabbin.