Character References

A character reference may be written by anyone who knows the defendant well.  You may have been asked to write a character reference because you are:

  • A current or ex- employer
  • An old family friend
  • A family member
  • A priest or other religious or social leader
  • A teacher or guidance councillor

(It is perfectly acceptable for you to write a court reference for your family member so long as you clearly state that fact that he/she is a family member and your relationship.)

Court references are generally used by a Magistrate or Judge to determine the character of the accused at the sentencing.

But this might be your first time writing a character reference and you may not be quite sure where to start. So we’ve prepared this guide and a sample letter for you.

What to include

There are a number of things that you should include and address in your court reference.

Most importantly, the reference must be specifically written as a character reference for the court. Some people use work-related reference letters and try to give them to the Court.  They aren’t acceptable for Court purposes and aren’t given any value.

Date & contact details: Include the date of writing as well as your contact details.  Some Magistrates and Judges wish to verify that you did in fact write the reference and will have a lawyer/prosecutor or clerk call to check. For their convenience, include a contact number where you can be contacted during office hours.

About you: Start the reference with some information about you – what you do for a living, how long you’ve lived in the area, any volunteer or committee positions you may have.  You don’t have to have a list of achievements to impress the Court with.  The Court just wants to know that you are a law abiding citizen.

How you know the defendant: Proceed next with how you know the Defendant.  If there is a family relation, say so.  How did you meet?  How many years have you known the person?  Did you watch them grow up?  The Court wants to know that you have had sufficient contact with the Defendant in order to provide the reference.

Use the second paragraph to tell the Magistrate or Judge what you know about the offending behaviour.  Keep it simple.  Don’t infer or speculate.  State only what you know to be true and what the person before the Court has told you direct.

The next paragraph/s should address what you want the court to know about the Defendant.  Has something happened in the Defendant’s life that has led to him or her committing the offence?  Is there an addiction?  Abusive relationship?  Hardship?  Mental health condition?  Has the offender taken steps to rehabilitate his or her life?  Again, stick to only what you directly know – what you’ve witnessed or discussed directly with the offender. Don’t speculate.  Don’t diagnose.  The point is to give the Magistrate or Judge insight as to the Defendant’s character through your reference so use as much detail as you can but only on subjects that you have direct knowledge of.  If the Defendant has told you how embarrassed or remorseful they are, put this in your reference.

The last paragraph should simply state that you understand the reference will be used for the Court’s purposes and that you are happy to be contacted to verify its authenticity or clarify any of the contents within.

What NOT to include in your character reference letter:

You know the old saying “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all?”

This is particularly true when it comes to character reference letters. If you don’t have anything nice to say about the defendant, it is best that you decline to provide a reference at all.

Don’t try to trick the magistrate.

Magistrates and judges did not come down in the last shower.  In their time on the bench, you would be surprised as to what they have seen and observed.  There usually isn’t a trick that they haven’t seen at some stage.

Don’t comment on guilt / or innocence

Usually, a reference is used because the Defendant has pleaded guilty to the charge or has been found guilty of the charge. And so the Court is no longer concerned with whether or not the person committed the crime.

To dispute this in a court reference makes it worthless and can negatively impact on the offender at sentencing.

If the Defendant has a criminal history and which you are aware of, you should also mention this in your reference.

Some other DON’Ts –

  • Use swear words or slang.
  • Suggest the penalty the Defendant should get.
  • Try to excuse the offending behaviour.
  • Forget to tell the Court about any community service/volunteer positions that the Defendant may have undertaken.