Character References: Frequently Asked Questions
What is a Character Reference?
A character reference is a document designed to allow a court insight into the life of the person before the court beyond the charge or charges under consideration. For a person going to court to be sentenced, a character reference will often help the court to determine the appropriate sentence.
A character reference may be provided to the judge or magistrate in order for them to better understand the general character of the person before the court. In Queensland, the Penalties and Sentences Act 1992 (Qld) mandates that a court must have regard to “the offender’s character…” So it is something that is quite important when you are talking about a sentencing proceeding, particularly for someone pleading guilty in a court.
What is the purpose of a character reference?
A character reference can inform the court about the reasons or circumstances that led to the offending, or the general character of the person before the court and their future plans. A character reference may influence the court when determining the appropriate sentence, as it may provide relevant information for the court to take into account.
Who should write a character reference?
Character references should be written by a person who knows the person before the court well and is able to provide relevant details about their character to the court. References may be from people such as:
Close friends or family members;
Present or former employers;
Community members with some knowledge of the person; or
Support person or counsellors.
How many character references are needed?
There is no set rule on the number of character references to be given to a court. A general guide is that the person who is best to comment on an issue going to character should write a reference.
For instance, it may be appropriate for an employer to write to the court about employment issues, such as the work ethic of an individual, but they may not be in a position to make broader comments about character if it is not within their knowledge. A family member, for example, may be better suited to outline the general reputation of the person before the court and the circumstances that led to the offending. However, there is no set rule and the number and nature of character references will vary from case to case.
Where should a character reference be sent?
Once a character reference has been finalised, it should be provided to either the person before the court or their lawyer. Generally speaking, a character reference should not to be sent directly to court.
Character Reference Content
I think it is important to say that sometimes the best examples of character references come from people just speaking from the heart. However, many people are uncertain as to what to include or exclude, so I’ll just address some considerations people should give when drafting a character reference.
The golden rule for character references is that anything that is said must be truthful. My own view is that judges and magistrates are pretty smart people and they seem to develop a sixth sense for spotting someone gilding the lily or worse. It is a very serious issue indeed to provide false information to a court and quite obviously can be itself an offence. So above all else, it is important that the writer of the character reference is truthful.
It stands to reason that if a person is going to court and is facing punishment for committing an offence, then it is only right that a person commenting on the character of that person should know something about it.
The writer of the character reference should be aware of the offences and whether they are aware the person before the court is pleading guilty to those offences (if the person is pleading guilty to the knowledge of the writer). It helps the court to have that awareness made plain.
It may seem obvious that the relationship between the writer and the person going to court be made clear, but sometimes it isn’t. It is often important for a court to understand the nature and length of the relationship between the writer and the person before the court. So spelling that out can be helpful.
If possible, any relevant background, history or circumstances that led to the charge or charges before the court should be explained by the writer.
Sometimes, for instance, a situation has arisen in somebody’s life that has really had an effect, sometimes devastatingly so, on their life. It can lead to poor decisions or to an act that is out of character. People who know someone well can sometimes best explain that background and how it may have contributed to any offending.
Personal Qualities and Character
The personal qualities and general character of the person before the court are important. This could be their demeanour, work ethic or any positive contributions made to the community.
Comment may be made, for example, that the offending is out of character – but only if that is actually the case. A statement that something is out of character obviously carries no weight if there is evidence of it not being an isolated or spontaneous act.
Impact of Charge
Any impact the writer has observed about the person before the court in terms of any affect, on their life and outlook as a result of being charged. This may include, if appropriate, expressions of or indications of remorse, anxiety or depression.
Any lifestyle changes the person before the court has made since the offending may be relevant. For instance, if drugs or alcohol may have contributed to the offending, any participation in rehabilitation programs or changes in daily living may be important.
Example of a Character Reference for Court
A character reference should be formatted so as to be easily read by the judicial officer. The following example of a character reference for court is just that – an example. People should feel free to ‘use their own voice’ when completing a character reference.
The example shows a structure that is easy to follow and illustrates where some basic information can be set out. In that regard, there are four matters that should be specifically noted:
It is better for a character reference to be type rather than hand-written. While this may not always be possible, it does make it easier for the judge or magistrate to read.
If the case is in the Magistrates Court it should be addressed to the ‘Presiding Magistrate’. If the case is in the District or Supreme Court it should be addressed to the ‘Presiding Judge’;
It should commence with ‘Your Honour’, instead of ‘Dear Sir/ Madam’. In a court, it is respectful to acknowledge the judicial officer is acting in his or her formal capacity; and,
The character reference should be signed, dated and include the contact details of the author. A signed character reference gives the court greater confidence the statements are honestly and genuinely made.
Character references often form an important part of the information given to the court about a person facing punishment. In some cases, a character reference can make the difference between one outcome or another. There is a good reason to treat it as an important step for someone who is pleading guilty, or who may be found guilty following a criminal trial.
While I’ve endeavoured to provide a broad overview of some of the important issues to consider when drafting a character reference, it is really only that – an overview. There are many issues that may be relevant in a specific case, which is why I would always recommend people seek legal advice when it comes to court proceedings.
The information contained on this page is general in nature and specific advice ought to be obtained from a lawyer before acting on any general information with respect to any legal matter.
Anderson Fredericks Turner has lawyers across Queensland who can provide specific advice with respect to issues involving failing to stop for police. Our lawyers are available for all courts throughout Queensland and we operate from local offices in Brisbane, Beenleigh, Maroochydore, Southport and Townsville.