This guide is written by our criminal lawyers in Sydney and serves as a practical guide for good character letters for court.
If you are guilty of a criminal or traffic offence, an effective character reference letter for a Judge or Magistrate to read on sentence can significantly improve your sentence outcome.
It is important to get character letters done properly. This can maximise your chances at either convincing the court to impose a non-conviction penalty, which will allow you to remain conviction free and avoid a licence disqualification if the court is convinced to impose a non-conviction Conditional Release Order or section 10 dismissal.
While in more serious cases, effective character reference letters can significantly improve your chances at avoiding full-time imprisonment.
An experienced criminal or traffic defence lawyer will be able to guide you in preparing the most effective good character reference letters in preparation to your sentence.
Sample character reference letter for court
Typed letterhead here i.e. KLM Pty Ltd
To: The Presiding Local Court Magistrate or District Court Judge
Name the specific court I.e. Downing Centre Local Court/District Court
GENERAL TOPICS TO BE COVERED
- Introduce yourself as the referee by outlining your name, age, occupation.
- When and where you were first introduced to the person who you’re writing this letter about (the offender).
- Outline how long you have known each other for.
- How often you see each other or communicate with each other.
- If the he/she has disclosed the criminal or traffic offence to you then briefly express this. For example, “I am aware the Steven has pleaded guilty to …
- Remorse, Shame, Insight and Rehabilitation Prospects:
- For shame: you may outline whether the offender expressed or showed any embarrassment for committing the offence.
- For remorse: you may briefly outline whether he/she expressed an acceptance of responsibility and regret for committing the criminal or traffic offence.
- For insight: you may outline whether the offender also expressed an acceptance of responsibility and understanding as to the seriousness of his/her conduct- by acknowledging the harm/loss or potential harm/loss caused to the victim from committing the offence.
- For example, “When Bob told me about his offence, I could see the extent of regret he had, and I believe he is truly ashamed. He has acknowledged the seriousness of his actions and realises the harm/potential harm caused.”
- For rehabilitation prospects: you may briefly outline your knowledge if he/she has or is attending a relevant program, course, counselling or treatment. This may be relevant to a Judge or Magistrate to consider as it can demonstrate an un-likelihood of re-offending. This is because, by addressing a factor that contributed to the offence, it shows he/she has taken active steps to ensure it doesn’t occur again. In addition:
- You may briefly outline any progress you have seen in him/her. Or any progress he/she has expressed experiencing from undertaking this. For example:
- In traffic cases: “Bob tells me he has been attending the traffic offenders program which he found to be very informative and helpful. He has even informed me about road safety which was refreshing to hear from him.”
- In drug/assault cases: “I understand that Bob has been getting treatment from a psychologist/drug & alcohol counsellor to deal with some personal issues. He tells me that this has been very helpful and intends to continue”.
- The court also has a MERIT program for those having issues with drugs. To participate in it, you may request the Magistrate or Judge to refer you to MERIT (Magistrates Early Referral into Treatment).
- Good Character:
- Outline your opinion of the offenders otherwise good character. You may give one example of what he/she did to demonstrate this over the time you have known him/her. You may write about what you think of that person. For example, “I have always found Steven an honest, hard-working and reliable person”.
- If the offender has never committed this kind of offence in the past, you may outline your shock due to it being uncharacteristic behaviour. For example, “This behaviour is very much unlike the Steven that I know and I am confident he will never do this again given how serious I believe he has taken this as”.
- If the offender has committed previous offences of this kind, then outline your knowledge of this. For example, “I’m aware that in 2017 Steven has committed the offence of…”
- If he/she has told you about the current offence committed (which is recommended), you may outline that you believe he/she is otherwise a very good character despite committing the offence.
- If you’re aware he/she has contributed to the community in any way, including charity contributions, then briefly outline this with some details, including when this occured and extent of contributions.
- If you’re aware of his/her personal commitments, then briefly outline what these are, including family dependents- children, partner or parents.
- If you depend on him/her to drive you around then briefly outline details of this and why.
- If you depend on his/her income then briefly outline details of this, including the extent of financial dependence and why.
- If you both have children or other dependent(s) who rely on you to drive or earn an income to pay certain expenses then outline details of this.
- If you are the partner or ex-partner then outline brief details regarding the family/children commitments, including school/day care/health details that will be affected if the offender is disqualified from driving or gets dismissed from his/her job.
- If you are the offender’s employer or work in the same company, then briefly outline the offender’s job details, including:
- Job title
- Period he/she has worked in this role for
- Details of what the role is or involves
- Outline the extent of skills required for this role and how hard it will be to find someone else to replace the offender
- If applicable, outline the extent of revenue the offender is making the company
- How hard the offender has worked or continues to work in this role and his/her reliability, punctuality and how effective he/she has been in the success of the company
- If applicable, the number of people who report directly to the offender in his/her role
- Outline whether a criminal conviction or licence disqualification will/will likely result in his/her dismissal and why:
- If a security job, then outline brief details of any requirements to undergo and pass criminal background checks and/or security licences or permits to be eligible to undertake a security job. It is recommended to back this up with evidence from the governing body that issues security licences/permits or requires the background check to be cleared.
- If a driver licence is required for the job, then outline brief details of the extent of the offender’s need for a licence to undertake the job. This includes outlining the number of hours or kilometers spent driving on a daily/monthly or yearly basis, and how often. If applicable, outline whether he/she is required to attend numerous remote locations in a day at short notice where there is no/limited public transport available.
- If the job involves international travel, then outline brief details of this. This includes an outline of destinations and how often he/she is required to normally does this.
- If the job requires government access to high security clearance areas, you may outline details of the type of security clearance(s) required and whether a traffic or criminal conviction will preclude him/her from getting that clearance.
- If you are the offender’s employer or work in the same company, then briefly outline the offender’s job details, including:
- Briefly state, that if required to, you are prepared to attend court to give evidence about the contents of this letter. Also state your postal address. On a practical level, you will not likely ever be asked to attend court to give evidence.
SAMPLES FOR SPECIFIC CRIMINAL OFFENCES
SAMPLES FOR SPECIFIC TRAFFIC OFFENCES
Basic Rules About Character Reference Letters
- Your character reference letter for court should not be more than 1 page long. A Judge or Magistrate in court has limited time for each case in a day. Your result is likely to be better if you stick to saying succinct, relevant points.
- It’s recommended to have the character reference letter typed, signed and dated.
- Hand the Judge or Magistrate with the original letter, not a copy.
- Be sure to review the letter to ensure it makes sense. Check for any spelling or grammatical errors. It’s recommended to get an experience criminal or traffic lawyer to review it.
- Always refer to the Judge or Magistrate as “Your Honour”.
- If applicable, and wherever possible, use a company letterhead.
- Use your own words and sentences to express what you want to communicate.
- Avoid duplicating the same relevant points made across more than 1 character reference letter if you’re using more than one.
Who can write a character reference letter?
Character reference letters should come from those close to the person requiring it for court. Including, family members, friends, charity organisation, employer, work colleague and/or religious organisation.
The chosen referee(s) you ask to write a character reference letter for court needs to be specifically and carefully picked who is capable of writing about the specific relevant points you want the Judge or Magistrate to consider for a better result on sentence. This will depend on a case by case basis with the type of criminal or traffic offence and the offender’s personal circumstances.
If you wish to make a point about the effects of a licence disqualification on your job and family dependents who rely on your income and/or ability to drive, it’s worthwhile trying to get a character reference letter from the employer and/or family dependent to outline these points.
If you wish to make a point about the impacts of a criminal conviction on your job or ability to obtain a role in your chosen field, it’s worthwhile trying to get a character reference letter from the employer or professional body that governs the particular profession outlining this.
Sometimes you may have an employment contract which outlines these kinds of relevant points in its clauses. As it is often difficult to get yourself to ask or get a letter from the employer to outline these issues, it is worth checking the employment contract for this information.
How many character reference letters can I use in court?
While there is no specific rule, it’s recommended to use your best 2 to 4 character reference letters in court for a criminal or traffic offence.
A Judge or Magistrate in court deal with many cases in a day. Court sits between 9:30am – 4pm. There is usually a morning tea break from 11:30am-12pm, and a lunch break from 1pm-2pm.
A Magistrate or Judge on a day in court will have a limited period of time to spend on your sentence. This is because they are required to get through a busy list of many cases in a day. It is a difficult task to do without making mistakes.
This means that it’s important to keep each character reference letter to the point, within 1 page with relevant information.
Some more complex cases may need to use more character reference letters. This will really depend on the case, offence and the offender’s individual personal circumstances.
It’s worthwhile getting guidance from an experienced criminal or traffic defence lawyer for guidance in this process.
Is the character reference provider required to attend court?
If the sentence is being heard in the Local Court, the writer of a character reference letter (‘referee’) is not generally required to attend court.
If the sentence is being heard in the District or Supreme Court, the referee may be required to attend court to give evidence if the prosecution wish to ask questions arising from the contents of the letter. Sometimes the prosecutor will not require the referee to attend if a copy of the letter is forwarded to the prosecutor in advance.
A more powerful way to get a Magistrate or Judge to take into account the relevant points in your case for a better sentence outcome is using affidavit(s).
An affidavit is a legal document which is considered sworn evidence to reflect what is said in the character reference letter. It can allow a Judge or Magistrate to give more weight to what is said in it in the offender’s favour than a character reference letter can.
Unless the prosecutor objects to the contents in the affidavit, the referee (author of the affidavit) will not normally be required to attend court to give that evidence.
An experienced criminal or traffic lawyer can guide you in this process.
guidance from an experienced criminal or traffic
- Avoid coming across or sounding over-confident or arrogant.
- Do not tell the Magistrate or Judge what to do or what you think he/she should do with the case. For example, avoid saying, “I think you should give him/her a section 10 dismissal non-conviction or Conditional Release Order without conviction”. “He/she deserves a second chance, do not send him/her to prison”.
- Be careful not to give excuses for the offender’s conduct. Avoid blaming others. Doing this will come across as showing a lack of remorse and insight into the offence which can result in a heavier sentence. Having said that, you may provide an explanation for the offender’s behaviour without providing excuses for him/her.
- Avoid using the wordings or sentences of others. A Judge or Magistrate is experienced enough to know.
How to start your sentence
- “I am aware that Steven has pleaded guilty to the offence of…”
- “Steven has expressed genuine regret and acknowledged the seriousness of his actions to me…”
- “Steven and I met 10 years ago when we were introduced at…”
- “I was absolutely shocked to hear about his/her offending behaviour as it is completely against his normal character that I have known for so many years.”
- “Your Honour, I have seen Steven give significant time helping other by…”
Lastly, it’s important to ensure that each character reference letter you use in court is true and accurate before a Judge or Magistrate reads it. Providing a false character reference letter can lead to more trouble for both the referee and the offender, including criminal charges.
It’s recommended to have an experience criminal or traffic lawyer to review each letter for feedback before handing the letter up in court.
With over 30-years-experience, our team of criminal and traffic lawyers have consistently achieved outstanding results across all serious criminal and traffic cases, including:
- Section 10 dismissals and Conditional Release Orders without conviction.
- Avoiding licence disqualification and demerit points for serious driving offences.
- Avoiding jail sentences for serious criminal and traffic offences.
- Getting serious criminal and traffic charges withdrawn early or downgraded.