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This article was written by Sally Crosswell

Sally Crosswell has a Bachelor of Laws (Hons), a Bachelor of Communication and a Master of International and Community Development. She also completed a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice at the College of Law. A former journalist, Sally has a keen interest in human rights law.

Character References (WA)


A character reference is a statement for the court from someone who can comment on an offender’s character. It is used to help determine an offender’s sentence after conviction, by allowing the court insight into the offender’s life beyond the facts of the offence and submissions from the prosecution. References often tell of an offender’s positive values, employment history and community involvement. They can be written by people such as close friends, family members, employers, teachers, community members or counsellors.

What to include

There is no specific list of what should be included in a character reference in Western Australia but there are general guidelines. A reference should include:

  • the length of time you have known the offender;
  • the basis of the relationship or connection e.g. teacher, employment supervisor;
  • the circumstances in which you interact, including how frequently you see each other;
  • observations about the offender’s character, personality and behaviour, focusing on positive traits, and any times these have been displayed;
  • acknowledgement of the offences, and any guilty plea;
  • any hardships or sacrifices for the offender as a result of the charges e.g. loss of employment, financial losses, reputational damage;
  • any positive lifestyle changes the offender has made since the offences.

Tailoring the reference

The reference should be tailored to the offence.

Assault charge: the referee should describe the offender’s character relating to violence, such as whether the offence is a rare or one-off incident.

Driving charge: the consequences of a loss of licence should be spelled out. For instance, an employer could state the offender will lose their job, or a spouse could state that children will miss out on sport due to having no one to transport them to games. If the offence was drink driving, the referee could explain how the offender is striving to be responsible when drinking alcohol.

Drug charge: a referee could point to the offender seeking treatment and rehabilitation, or that the offence was a one-off incident. A sports coach referee could point to the impact of an offender’s likely suspension or expulsion from the sport for drug use. An employer could point to the impact of a conviction on the offender’s ability to obtain work in their chosen field.

Dishonesty charge: a referee could try to explain the reason for the offending, such as financial difficulty. They could also point to any reparation attempts made by the offender.

What not to include

Because a reference is used only after a person has been convicted, the reference must not make any claim that the referee believes the person is not, or is unlikely to be, guilty.

It should not try to excuse the offender’s behaviour or blame the victim of the offence, nor criticise the law or police.

The reference should not speak about the offender in glowing terms because this may have an adverse effect on the sentence imposed. The reference should also not state the offence is “out of character” if the person has a history of the offence, so the referee should investigate before writing the reference.

It also should not suggest any type of penalty, because this is for the magistrate or judge alone to determine.

Formalities

There are general rules for the presentation of character references. These include:

  • addressing the reference to the Presiding Magistrate (Magistrates Court) or Presiding Judge (District or Supreme Court);
  • beginning the reference with Your Honour;
  • signing and dating the reference;
  • stating any formal positions held by the referee and using letterhead if possible;
  • handing the original to the magistrate or judge, after copies have been made by the solicitor;
  • a reference being about 1 page and no longer than 2 pages;
  • providing 1, 2 or 3 quality references;
  • remembering that providing a forged or fraudulent reference is an offence.

If the sentence is heard in the Magistrates Court, the referee is not usually required to be in court. In the District or Supreme Court, the referee may be required to give evidence if the prosecution decides to question the contents of the reference.

If an offender is unable to obtain a character reference, they should ensure the court is aware the offending behaviour is out of character, the offender is remorseful and is unlikely to repeat the behaviour. If the offence prompted therapy or counselling, a letter confirming this from the therapy provider or counsellor may be helpful.

For advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Lawyers.

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