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Character Reference (Vic)

Persons who are being sentenced for criminal offences often tender character references to the court. A character reference is a statement made by a person with a good reputation in the community who knows the defendant. The statement will include details of the person’s personality and character and give the court a better understanding of their personal life. No matter what type of offence the person is being sentenced for, a character reference may give them the opportunity to show the court that they are an honest person, and ultimately, may lead to a more lenient sentence.

A character reference can help convince the court that the crime committed was a one-off event and that the person is usually not inclined to commit offences. It is important that it be written by someone who knows them enough to make this distinction clear to the court.

A reference may be written by any person in the community that you choose. However, a reference will carry more weight if it is written by someone who is not a family member or personal friend, but an employer, colleague or business associate. If the person being dealt with by the court is undertaking rehabilitation or counselling, they may also wish to have the health practitioner who is overseeing them write a reference.

How to structure a character reference

The court requires that character references be set out in a formal fashion. They should be typed, dated and signed and should be on letterhead where appropriate. Written references will only be accepted if they can be clearly read and understood.

Ideally, a character reference should be addressed “To the Presiding Judge/Magistrate”. It is also acceptable to begin a reference with “Your Honour”.

The reference should make it clear that the writer knows that the person is being sentenced for criminal offences and that they know the nature and circumstances of the offences. A character reference that does not refer to the criminal offending will not be given any weight.

What to avoid when in character references

The court will not accept character references that include insulting or aggressive language towards the offender, victim or the court. Character references should be written in a formal and respectful tone.

Character references must not include any legal opinions or make any suggestions as to the penalty that the court should impose. The court will also not allow any personal opinions about whether the charges laid were appropriate.

What a Character Reference should set out

Victorian courts require character references to cover the following points in particular detail:

  • The referee should introduce themself and provide their personal details, including full name and occupation;
  • The referee must explain their standing in the community and their relationship to the offender.
  • The referee should explain that they are aware of the charge against the offender and know how the offender is pleading;
  • The referee must give their opinion of the offender’s character, using examples of their past interactions with the offender;
  • If the offender is seeking a non-conviction, the referee should explain to the court how they will be disadvantaged if convicted of the offence;
  • The referee must also state whether or not in their opinion the offence was a one-off or whether the offender is receiving relevant medical or treatment.

Different references for different charges

Despite the points set out above, there is no single way to write a character reference. Each offence has different elements that will require the referee to address different aspects of the offender’s character to support the case.

Drink Driving Charges

When a person is being sentenced for drink driving or traffic offences, the character reference will need to include specifics as to how they have rehabilitated themself. The reference should also explain to the court what steps the offender has taken to ensure they will not drive after drinking alcohol and they are aware that their actions were wrong.

Criminal Offences

If a person is being sentenced for an assault, the character reference will need to focus on their non-violent character. If the offence was a one-off, the reference will need to explain that the person is not usually violent. If the offence is not a one-off, the reference will need to outline to the court what steps the offender is taking or will take (for example, counselling or anger management) to correct their behaviour and avoid future offending.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter please contact Armstrong Legal. 

Michelle Makela

This article was written by Michelle Makela

Michelle has over 15 years experience in the legal industry, working across commercial litigation, criminal law, family law and estate planning.  Michelle has been involved in all practice areas of the firm and in her personal practice has had experience in litigation at all levels (State and Federal Industrial Tribunals, the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, the Federal Court, Federal...

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