Good Character Reference Guide For Criminal Cases

A good character reference letter can drastically improve your chances of the best possible outcome in court, and is usually prepared for the Judge to read after you plead guilty, or if you’re found guilty to an offence.

To ensure you get the best chances at avoiding a criminal conviction, or even prison, each letter should express specific relevant information from the right people. This is where an experienced criminal defence lawyer can be a much needed guidance to review each letter.


Who Should I Get Character Reference Letters From?

Character reference letters can come from a family, friends, charity, employer or work colleague, and a letter of apology from you.

As part of this process, the person you should get a letter from will depend on your case and the kind of information you want the Magistrate or Judge to know. Its critical to ensure it comes from the right person for the right purpose, which is something your lawyer will be able to guide you on.

These letters can come from charity, boss, supervisor, work colleague, family, friends and a letter of apology from yourself.

Each letter should come from the right person expressing the critical information you want the Judge or Magistrate to know about your case.

Effect of a conviction on job or career

If the result of a criminal conviction will result in the loss of your current job due to requirements of criminal background checks, or security clearances, then a letter should be obtained from your employer or supervisor confirming this in writing. If this is difficult to get, another option is getting a copy of your employment contract, or formal policy document expressing this.

Effect of a disqualification on job or career

If the loss of your driver licence will result in dismissal at work because your role requires you to have a licence to drive to different locations, then a letter confirming this from your employer should be obtained for the Judge to read. Alternatively, you can use your employment contract or company policy document if it expresses the same points.

Effect of a conviction or disqualification on family dependants

If your family members, such as partner, will be significantly inconvenienced from the loss of your job or licence, especially if you are the only income provider in the family, then he or she can give a letter expressing this in detail for the Magistrate to read.

Charity work and contributions to community

Any charity work you have done can also assist in getting a more lenient result in court. If so, you can hand up letters or certificates confirming this for the Judge to read. You can also have your other referees include this in their letters, if he/she are aware of it.

Apology letter from you

A letter coming from you, in your own words, for the Magistrate or Judge to read can significantly improve your result in court. Especially if the letter reflects your family and work commitments, remorse, shame and insight into your offence.

What Should I Say In A Character Reference Letter?

A character reference letter should be in the referees own words. Importantly, it should express the following main points:

  • Your good character, which includes the good things you have done. The referee should give an example of a good deed you are aware of.
  • How long, and the circumstances the referee knows you.
  • What the referee does, or previously did for work. The period of time he/she has done this for.
  • The referee should express his/her knowledge of your offence and the seriousness of it.
  • The referee should express any emotions of your remorse, insight and shame after revealing the offence. i.e. here you can express whether he/she has accepted responsibility.
  • The referee can write about his/her shock, and any opinions of the uncharacteristic behaviour of your offending conduct.
  • The referee can express his/her concerns of any effects of a conviction or disqualification on your job. This can be very powerful if the referee is your employer or supervisor. The letter here should express details of your need for a licence, and why a conviction free record is essential for your job. This may include criminal record checks or security clearance requirements, and whether a disqualification of your licence and conviction will result in dismissal.
  • The referee can also express concerns of the effect of the loss of a job and/or disqualification on your family dependants and any other personal commitments of yours, such as mortgage repayments.
  • Each letter should not tell the Magistrate or Judge what to do.

What Should A Character Reference Letter Look Like?

Each letter should be signed and dated, with the original handed to the Magistrate or Judge. It should be addressed to “The Presiding Magistrate or Judge”. It should have the company letter head if it’s from an organisation or your employer.

How Many Character Reference Letters Should I Get?

As a rule of thumb, stick to using 2-4 good character reference letters to hand to the Magistrate or Judge to read. An experienced lawyer will be able to properly guide you, as Magistrates and Judges are very busy, who hear numerous cases each day.

You only have one chance at getting it right, with the right amount of documents and information, with limited time for the Judge to read it. Sometimes a case may require more letters, as it depends on how complex it is.

An experienced criminal defence lawyer will be able to guide you in this.

Does The Referee Need To Attend Court?

The referees giving the letter for the Judge to read generally don’t need to attend court.

Sometimes, if the case is in the District Court, the Judge may give more leniency and a better outcome to your case if the referee attends, and gives that evidence under oath in the witness box. An alternative to this is by handing up an executed affidavit of your evidence instead of having to go in the witness box.

Its critical to get each character reference letter done properly, without any mistakes. Once its given to the Judge or Magistrate to read, it can’t be returned for changes to it. As each case is different, its critical to get proper realistic guidance from a criminal defence lawyer.

General Sample

Good Character Reference Sample for Court

Letterhead if possible e.g. Acme Pty Ltd


To: The Presiding Magistrate
Local Court at Sydney Downing Centre

Your Honour,


  • The writer knows about the charge(s) and:
    – that the person has been found guilty or pleaded guilty. There is no point in saying that the person is innocent.
  • How long the writer has known the person in trouble
  • How the writer got to know the person in trouble
  • What the writer thinks of that person
  • Anything specific about the person in trouble
  • Don’t tell the Magistrate his/her job (e.g. “John Smith should be given a bond and not sent to gaol)
  • Not the sort of person who would commit this sort of offence
  • Drink driving offences/licence appeals: effect on the person and others such as family if disqualified from driving
  • A statement that the writer is prepared to attend court to give evidence about the person in trouble’s character if required to do so. The writer’s postal address should be included for service of subpoena.

Yours faithfully,

Name printed

Basic rules about character references:

  • Character references should, whenever possible, be typed on letterhead.
  • They should be signed and dated, and originals should be brought to court.
  • They should be addressed to either: (a) ‘To the Presiding Magistrate’, or to (c) ‘Your Honour’.
  • They do not have to be ‘formal’; they should be the words of the person who gives the reference (who is called your ‘referee’).

What your ‘referee’ should say about themselves:

Your referee should say something about:

  • what he or she does for a living, eg “I have worked in XYZ Organisation as a manager for ‘x’ years”
  • any positions or titles held, eg business or employment positions, church, military, positions in community organisations etc.
  • any positive contributions he or she has made to the community, eg involvement in charity work. That information should somehow be slipped in, without sounding over-confident or arrogant.

What your referee should say about you:

Your referee should say:

  • how long and in what circumstances he or she has known you, eg “I have known John for 3 years through working together at XYZ Organisation” or “John has been my close friend for 5 years”.
  • how often you meet or see each other, eg “I see John every weekday during work” or “I see John almost fortnight when we meet to socialise”.
  • something your personality and behaviour, eg “I have always known John to be a decent, honest and caring person” or “John is a very hard worker and has always been punctual and efficient at work” etc. Examples can be given.

What your referee should say about the offence, your attitude and the possible impact:

  • Your referee MUST make it clear that he or she is aware of the nature and seriousness of the charge/s, eg “I am aware that John has pleaded guilty to “x” which is a very serious offence”. The referee should also make reference to any previous offence/s, eg “I am aware that in 2010, John also pleaded guilty to “x”.
  • Your referee should say that the current offence is ‘out of character’, eg “I was extremely surprised when John told me about what he did. It is certainly not consistent with my experiences of him”.
  • Your referee can refer to any remorse expressed by you and say that you have taken responsibility, eg “I have spoken with John at length about the incident. He takes full responsibility for what he did and has expressed deep shame and remorse. He understands that his actions are acceptable. I believe it is highly unlikely that he would engage in such conduct in the future”.
  • Your referee should refer to any concerns about a criminal conviction or loss of licence, without telling the Magistrate or Judge what to do, eg:
  • “John has told me he is very worried about getting a criminal conviction as this would prevent him from obtaining a job as ‘x’ “; or
  • “John is concerned that he will lose his job as an ‘x worker’ if he receives a criminal conviction, as his job is subject to criminal record checks and he is required to be conviction-free”; or
  • “A loss of licence would prevent John from fulfilling his work duties as an “x” as he is required to travel between various locations within the Sydney area on a daily basis. This will impact on his ability to pay his bills and take care of his family”.

Finally, this is a guide only. The contents in your reference letters must be accurate and true- as they will be handed to the Judge.

Please use your own style and wording.

Samples for Specific Criminal Offences


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