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A Guide To Character References

Character References and Sentencing

The Penalties and Sentences Act sets out in Section 9, all of the principles that a Court must have regard to when sentencing a person. These factors can help to mitigate a person’s sentence and can help them to achieve a better outcome or a lower sentence. One of the factors stated in the legislation that a Court must take into account when sentencing a person is their character.

The best way to show the Court that you are of good character is to provide the Court with character references from your friends or family. This guide can help to assist you with obtaining or providing character references for Court.
If you would like some free example template character references to use or if you have any questions about character references, contact one of our lawyers today for assistance.

Obtaining a Character Reference

It is a good idea to obtain one or more references from people who ‘are of good reputation’. This means they do not have a criminal record or a bad reputation.

These people may be neighbours, family friends, work colleagues, members of clubs or organisations you belong to such as community, sporting, religious, political and other groups.

Each reference should be addressed ‘To the Presiding Magistrate’ or ‘To the Presiding Judge’.

They should be:

  1. Neatly written or typed; and 
  2. Dated and signed with the name of the person printed underneath with their addresses and occupation. If a reference is not signed it cannot be used. 

Each reference should include the following:

  1. A statement from the person writing the reference that they are aware of the charges before the Court (and must actually specifically state what the charges are that you are facing);
  2. How long the person has known you;
  3. How the person knows you (for example as an employer, work colleague, teacher, team member, family friend, flatmate); and
  4. Anything which might help the Court concerning your character as a person.

You should provide the original signed copy to your solicitor. If you are representing yourself, keep a copy of each reference and tender the original signed copies to the Court.

Providing a Character Reference

The purpose of obtaining references, in circumstances where a person is being sentenced for a criminal or traffic offence, is to provide the Court with some evidence about the person’s character, their status in the community and their attitude to the offence, including how committing and pleading guilty to the offence has impacted upon them. This evidence assists the Court in determining the appropriate penalty.

A Court reference is not a general reference, such as an employment reference, which people may have in their CV. For a Court reference, it is not sufficient to just write. “To whom it may concern … X is a person of good character.”

Rather, a Court reference should be addressed to “The Presiding Magistrate” or ‘”To The Presiding Judge” at the Court where the person is appearing and it needs to state exactly why the referee thinks the person is of good character and precisely how the referee is qualified to make that assessment. Court references must be specific and detailed.

The Referee

It helps if referees are themselves people of good character – a reference from a minister or teacher will carry more weight than a reference from a friend. However, referees do not need to have a title and letters after their name – some of the best references are from ‘ordinary’ people, including family members.

The Reference

References are best written “from the heart” and must be completely honest. Neat handwritten references are preferable but typed references are also able to be used. They should be succinct and as brief as possible – generally no more than one to two A4 pages.

Points to cover:

  1. Be addressed to ‘The Presiding Magistrate’ or ‘The Presiding Judge’;
  2. Include the referee’s full name, including any titles or qualifications if applicable;
  3. Include the referee’s full home or business address;
  4. A brief explanation of how long the referee has known the person and in what circumstances e.g. relative, friend, neighbour, employer, work colleague, sporting team member, parishioner, student, patient. It follows that a referee should generally have known the person for a long enough period, or in such circumstances, as to qualify the referee to comment on the person’s character;
  5. The fact that the referee is aware of the offence (they should state what the offences are in their reference so the Court knows they are fully aware of what the person is charged with) and has discussed it with the person, including any explanation or expression of remorse the person has given. It is essential that the referee be made fully aware of the offence to which the person has pleaded guilty and discusses the offence and its implications with the person. This in itself may be difficult and embarrassing for the person, but it is part of the process of demonstrating an acceptance of guilt and contrition for the offence. The willingness of a person to admit and discuss the offence with family, friends and colleagues is one of the things that the Court will take into account when considering references.
  6. The referee’s opinion, based on the past relationship, of the person’s character. It is generally unhelpful for referees to include in a reference anything they do not know for sure. For example, the statement “X does not normally drink drive” will be completely disregarded by the Court if X’s traffic record includes previous drink driving charges. Referees should ensure that they check their facts with the person on whose behalf they are writing, or otherwise confine their comments to first-hand knowledge.
  7. The referee’s opinion, based on discussion and observation, of the impact the offence and its implications have had upon the person, including how the person’s attitude and behaviour may have changed since the offence;
  8. Any issues specific to the referee, for example an employer may like to comment on the effect that a conviction and/or any loss of licence will have upon the person’s continuing employment status;
  9. An opinion, based on the referees knowledge of the person and their discussions with them, as to the likelihood of the person re-offending; and
  10. Anything else the referee considers appropriate.

There is nothing wrong with a person reading a reference that has been written about them, but if a referee wishes a reference to remain confidential it should be handed to the defendant in a sealed envelope or forwarded directly to your lawyer.

Referees will not normally receive any response to, nor enquiries about, their reference and are not generally required to attend court in person, but may do so if they wish.

Court references are only read by the person’s lawyer, the police prosecutor and the sentencing Judge or Magistrate. Once handed to the Court, the reference becomes a public document and remains with the Court file.

If you have any questions or require any assistance with Court references or if you would like some free example templates to use, please do not hesitate to contact one of our solicitors and we can help you with any queries you have.

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