Writing a good character reference for court is critical to the sentencing outcome of a criminal case. If you or someone that matters to you has been charged with a crime, a character reference can affect the Judge or Magistrate’s impression of the accused in the context of the offending. Character references are important because they provide a direct view of what a person is like, often in ways that no lawyer – no matter how good – can explain.
We are often asked about character references by our clients so we have created this page to help you write a good legal character reference that takes into account the specific circumstances of each case.
✓ What is the charge?
✓ Is it a first offence or a subsequent offence?
✓ Which court is handling the case?
✓ Who is providing the character reference?
✓ Any positive things about the defendant?
✓ How will a sentence affect the defendant’s job, family, etc.?
Writing a Character Reference for Court
WHAT is the charge relevant to the case?
Know what the person is pleading guilty to. Clearly state this in the character reference because there is no point turning up with a character reference that does not do this. Writing a reference for someone charged with drink driving is different from writing a reference for someone facing a sexual charge.
I understand that Peter Ward is pleading guilty to the charge of indecent assault.
WHOM should you address the character reference to?
In Victoria, the character reference must be addressed “To the Sentencing Magistrate, [court location]” if the case will be heard by a Magistrates’ Court. If the case will be handled by the County Court, it should be addressed “To the Sentencing Judge, [court location]”. Start all legal character references with “Your Honour”.
To the Sentencing Magistrate
Melbourne Magistrates’ Court
WHY are you writing the character reference?
Because you know the accused well. How you came to know the accused should be clearly established in a character reference for court. You do not have to be an important person. You can be a family member, employer, a family friend, or someone closely associated with the accused who can vouch for the accused’s character.
- If you are a family member, you can have a very important perspective of the person.
As John’s older brother, I know how hard it was for him to grow up without a mother and to lose such an invaluable person at the start of someone’s teenage years. He had so much grief that it became a challenge for him to communicate with other people.
You should also indicate in the reference whether you continue to provide ongoing support for the accused.
Our entire family is dedicated to supporting John and the means necessary for his complete rehabilitation.
- If you are an employer, your character reference is crucial to showing the court that the accused is employed and has ongoing work. What is the job and how long has the person been employed? Is the accused hardworking? How is the accused’s attitude towards other people at work?
Jane’s contribution to the company as an auto sales executive for five years is highly regarded by all our staff. It is certainly an honour to be a supervisor of such a promising employee. She is a very hardworking person and is usually the last person to leave the office as she tries to resolve issues encountered by the rest of her team throughout the day.
It is vital that you state whether you can continue employing the person should the court impose a jail sentence or other penalties (ex. licence suspension).
Our company policies will not allow Jane to continue her employment with us the minute she receives a gaol term for a criminal charge. A licence suspension will also prevent her from fulfilling her duties and hence, if this occurs, she will be asked to temporarily leave her post until the suspension is lifted.
- If you are a friend of the accused, you can write a character reference that shows a good familiarity with the person. How long have you known the accused? How is the person like when outside home and when interacting with people in the community? Is the person a good friend? Why?
I have known James since we became team mates at our high school’s soccer team more than two decades ago. He was the best man at my wedding and is almost like a second father to my 3 children, often driving them to school after I lost my car in an accident 3 years ago.
- If you are someone who does not fall under any of the 3 types of referee above, you can still write a character reference provided that you explain your relationship with the accused. How are you associated and why are you writing a character reference on behalf of the accused? Your answers to these questions will determine how much weight the court will give to your character reference.
Because you know that the person has positive qualities. Not everyone may be aware of someone’s good attributes – especially the Magistrate or the Judge. Accordingly, a character reference should convey the many positive qualities of the accused. Has the accused performed any voluntary work? Does the accused look after the sick? Or maybe the accused is a coach of a junior footy team and is much admired by all members of the team. Explain this to the Magistrate or the Judge by citing specific details that will paint a clearer picture of a person’s life.
Nina is a teenager with a very generous heart. She has volunteered many times to babysit for my 2 children and even helped them to excel in arithmetic skills. I have also seen her care for her ailing mother while the rest of her peers enjoy parties and other social activities.
Because you know what the consequences of a criminal penalty to the person will be. How a specific sentence will affect an accused’s job, family, etc. must be clearly communicated in your character reference. Will the accused lose a promising career if a conviction is imposed? Would the accused’s family suffer if his or her licence is cancelled and the family’s only source of income is the accused’s driving job? A Judge or Magistrate may take these things into consideration when deciding the appropriate penalty to impose.
This charge will ruin Helen’s reputation among her students and colleagues which she has so painstakingly built over the last 32 years. Furthermore, the outcome of this case will greatly affect her retirement which is due to be in 5 months.
HOW else should you write a character reference for court?
Be specific and include details. Instead of merely describing the accused in general terms as good, responsible, reliable, or well respected; provide examples that will show the Judge or Magistrate why the person matches these characterisations. Why do you say that the accused is reliable? Were there instances when the accused clearly demonstrated a sense of responsibility? How has the person been helpful to others?
Jenny has always had the respect of our neighbourhood, especially after she organised an association for single parents with the aim of helping broken families deal with the challenges of single parenthood.
State if the charge is a first offence. This is very important. There is no point in writing a character reference for court that refers to the offending as “out of character” if the accused has already done it before. Be very careful when discussing the facts of a case in detail and, if you do, make sure to first read the summary of facts being read to the Judge or Magistrate.
If the accused has not been in trouble before, it should be highlighted in the character reference. That the accused has always led a very positive lifestyle should be clearly emphasised in writing.
I have known Mike to be a very peaceful person and he has always been a regular member of the church. This is the first time in my 12 years of knowing him that someone has accused him of assault. He has never been the type to resolve conflicts through violence and, in fact, he is an active member of a group that provides counselling to juveniles in our community.
Explain whether the person has shown remorse. That the accused deeply regrets the offending must be made known to the Magistrate or Judge. Has the accused shown accountability by paying for damages to the victim or asking for an apology? Express your observations that have led you to conclude that the accused is truly sorry for what he or she has committed. Did the accused talk directly to you about the charge? Have you seen signs of guilt or anxiety such as trouble sleeping?
I have seen how Lily sincerely regrets having committed the offence. When she approached me to confide about the charge, she knew in herself that she had done something wrong and must be accountable for the consequences of her actions. She couldn’t function properly at work knowing that she had caused someone a great financial loss.
Discuss any hardships, sacrifices, etc. that the person has had to go through due to the offending. What was the impact of the offending on the accused’s reputation in the community? Was the accused terminated from his or her employment? Was the accused disowned by family or friends? You may also discuss financial losses incurred from paying damages to the victim.
Most of Steve’s savings and those of his family have already been spent financing the victim’s hospitalisation bills. He has also had to file a temporarily leave of absence from his job to address all the legal concerns relevant to this case.
Include anything else that may be relevant. Apart from the things mentioned above, you may cite other things that may be relevant to the case. Do you know of personal circumstances that may have led the accused to commit the offence? The accused may have been in extreme need of money to pay for his only son’s hospital bills or perhaps the accused recently lost someone and was emotionally unstable at the time. However, be careful not to shift the blame to others when doing this.
Have the reference signed and dated. This strengthens the fact that the character reference is up to date and was especially written for the case. It is best to also include your contact information (phone number, etc.) so that the Prosecutor, Magistrate, or Judge knows that you can easily be reached if they need to clarify anything.
Write the character reference on official letterhead whenever possible. You should also state your position or qualifications if any.
Never do any of these things:
✗ Provide false or misleading information in the character reference.
✗ Suggest to the Judge or Magistrate what penalty to impose.
✗ Criticise the law, police, prosecutor, or the victim.
✗ Antagonise the Judge or Magistrate to whom the reference is addressed.
WHERE do you send the character reference?
Although the character reference for court is addressed to the Magistrate or Judge, it should not to be sent directly to the court. Hand it to the accused or to the lawyer representing the accused. They will check whether the reference can be helpful to the case and whether it is necessary for the type of offending involved.
WHEN do you send the character reference?
Provide it as early as possible and well before the date of the court hearing. The lawyer will first have to examine the reference and decide whether to use it. Upon checking the reference, a defence lawyer may also learn something about the accused which may turn out to be helpful in court.
Character Reference for Court Samples
Have further questions? Call our lawyers in Melbourne, Broadmeadows, Heidelberg, Sunshine, or Moorabbin.