The importance of character references in a court case

If you know someone who is being sentenced in Court and they ask you for a character
reference do you know what to do?
The purpose of a character reference for a person who has pleaded guilty to a criminal
or traffic matter is to being to the Courts attention details of good character about the
accused. Lawyers will acknowledge that in many cases the character reference will not
make any difference to the penalty imposed, however all lawyers would agree that a
poorly framed character reference will not help at all.
Address the reference to the Court
References that are not addressed to the Court are basically unusable. An unaddressed
reference is likely to be met with a comment from the Judge or Magistrate that it could
be a job application or some club membership with the implication being that it will be
So it is best to see the Court papers so you can address it to the relevant Court. You do
not need to address it to a particular Judge or Magistrate, “The Presiding Magistrate
(insert district) Court” will do.
This immediately indicates it is for the person who is before the Court. For the same
reason it needs to have a date and preferably be kept clean, businesslike and
typewritten. Overall the reference should not exceed one page. Often the best ones are
Specify the time you have known the person
It should include details stating how long the person writing the reference has known the
person they are writing about and set out the details about how that happened, for
example through work or a sporting team.
The person writing the reference should say in their own words and (hopefully) make
relevant and positive comments about the character of the subject.
Acknowledge the offence
You need to put yourself in the shoes of the judicial officer. A reference will carry more
weight if the person writing the reference has been told by the accused about the
offence (not just some of the offences but the lot). If the writer can make the point that
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the accused person has discussed it with him/her the writer can then say, if applicable,
that it is out of character. It is advisable that a person writing a character reference
include note this in the opening of the reference so the judicial office is made aware
early on and can read with that in mind as in addition, that notwithstanding the offence,
the writer is still prepared to write such a reference.
Discuss the offence with the person
For the same reason it can be helpful for the person writing the reference to actually
discuss the offence with the person they are writing about. They might then be able to
say that they are aware that the person is sorry or remorseful for what they have done or
cite examples of why it is out of character.
Family or Community involvement
If you know the accused through a family or community association then you can cite
examples of you observations about family commitments or involvement with community
activities that the offender may have undertaken that you know about.
Sometimes references won’t help at all but in other circumstances they can have a
positive effect in the sentencing process. Nevertheless it is better to be in a position to
provide them than not. You don’t want to provide too many but if you ask say three
people you may want to use the best two.
If you are ever in need of one or of having to write one it is useful to have these tips in
If you need more information or if you need assistance or advice on how to proceed
please call us on 02 9191 9293 or email