Having several character references written and presented in court is very important. It is sometimes the most important piece of evidence for a defendant facing a criminal charge.
The character reference needs to address the issues the Defendant’s lawyer is trying to emphasise, for example, a good work history, the need for a driving licence, the positive changes in a person’s life since they got in trouble and so forth.
A character reference letter for Court does not have to be from an ‘important’ person. It can be from your wife, your child, your family friend or someone at your work. Character references can be from anyone who has something positive or useful to say which can provide a fuller picture of the defendant.
It’s all about using the character reference to explain to the Judge who you are and how the offending behaviour is out of character, rather than them just judging you for your offences.
Essential Tips for a Character Reference
1. The character reference should be addressed “To the Sentencing Magistrate” or “To the Sentencing Judge”.
As a lawyer, it’s important to know that the recipient of a character reference depends on the court where the defendant’s case is being heard. If the case is being heard in the Magistrates’ Court in Queensland, the character reference should be addressed to the “Sentencing Magistrate.”
On the other hand, if the case is in the District Court, the reference should be addressed to the “Sentencing Judge.” Properly addressing the reference is essential as it demonstrates that it is specifically intended for the recipient and not a generic reference.
2. Show that you know what charges the Defendant is pleading guilty to.
It’s not necessary to provide a detailed list of the specific charges when writing a character reference. Instead, a general statement such as “I understand that Tom Smith is pleading guilty to drink driving” or “Tom is facing robbery charges” will suffice.
By mentioning the current offence, the Judge will recognise that you are aware of the defendant’s circumstances and the reason for the reference. It’s crucial to ensure that the character reference acknowledges the charges as it shows that you have an understanding of the defendant’s situation.
Without mentioning the charges, the Judge may question the relevance of the character reference and its value in the case. Therefore, it’s vital to provide an accurate description of the charges in the reference.
3. Find out if the person has been in trouble for this criminal offence before.
As a lawyer, it’s important to note that providing a character reference claiming that the defendant’s behaviour is “out of character” when they have a history of similar actions is pointless. Such a reference would hold no value and would be dismissed by the court.
It’s crucial to exercise caution when discussing the facts of the case, especially if you haven’t seen the summary of facts that will be presented to the Judge. Discussing the details of the case without proper information could be detrimental to the defendant’s case.
To ensure that your character reference is relevant and credible, it’s important to provide accurate and truthful information. Avoid making unsupported statements, such as claiming that the defendant’s actions are entirely out of character. Instead, focus on highlighting positive aspects of the defendant’s character that are relevant to the case.
4. How long you have known the person?
This is a useful thing to put in a reference as it shows they have known you long enough to see a change in you. eg “I have known Tom since he was 12 and first started washing my cars. He has been through a tough time and I have seen him mature greatly over the last 6 months”
5. Include plenty of 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 Tom for 2 years and he is a kind person.”Or much better, they might say “I have known Tom 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 is shown to be untruthful.
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 them?
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? The purpose of a character reference for court is to provide context to a person’s life.
Everyone has some good qualities. It is important to explain them to the Judge.
9. Is it 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. “Times are tough at our work and if Tom does not have his licence we will try to keep him, but we will likely 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 kids to their soccer games on the weekend, and as I work I can’t do it either.”
The main penalties people have for 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 they will have time to ask you to change it if what you’re saying would not help or is awkwardly drafted. An example is 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 must be signed and dated so the Judge can know 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’ve written if you want.”
12. Get the character references to the lawyer early.
It is always useful to get references from 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 you should get. Generally, the more character references you get, the better. Your lawyer can always just choose the ones they want to use.
14. Do not suggest what penalty they should get.
Avoid the mistake of recommending a specific penalty when providing a character reference for court. Judges may become annoyed when individuals who lack knowledge of the details of the case or the rules of sentencing attempt to tell them what to do.
Instead, focus on highlighting the positive qualities of the defendant in the character reference. Leave the task of submitting sentencing recommendations to the lawyer who has the appropriate knowledge and expertise. By providing an objective and positive character reference, you can assist the court in making an informed decision.
15. If you have any questions about what you are writing in the character reference ring their lawyer.
They should be willing to answer your questions as your reference is helping their 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 official 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.
Don’t leave yourself open to hefty fines or even jail time – speak with an experienced criminal lawyer at our firm today. With offices in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, Potts Lawyers can represent clients throughout Queensland for all kinds of Criminal Law, Traffic Law and Commercial Crime cases.