If you know someone who is being sentenced in Court, and they ask you for a character reference, do you know what to do?

If a person has pleaded guilty to a criminal or traffic matter, a character reference enables the Court to see details of the accused’ good character. Lawyers will acknowledge that in many cases the character reference will not make any difference to the penalty imposed, however, all lawyers would agree that a poorly framed character reference will not help at all.

Address the reference to the Court

References that are not addressed to the Court are basically unusable. An unaddressed reference is likely to be met with a comment from the Judge or Magistrate that it could be a job application or some club membership with the implication being that it will be ignored.

So, it is best to see the Court papers so you can address it to the relevant Court. You do not need to address it to a particular Judge or Magistrate, “The Presiding Magistrate (insert district) Court” will do.

This immediately indicates it is for the person who is before the Court. For the same reason it needs to have a date and preferably be kept clean, businesslike and typewritten. Overall, the reference should not exceed one page. Often the best ones are succinct.

Specify the time you have known the person

It should include how long the person writing the reference has known the person they are writing about and set out the details about how that happened, such as through work or a sporting team.

The person writing the reference should say in their own words and (hopefully) make relevant and positive comments about the character of the subject.

Acknowledge the offence

A reference will carry more weight if the person writing the reference has been told by the accused about the offence (not just some of the offences, but all of them). If the writer can make the point that the accused person has discussed it with him/her – the writer can then say (if applicable) that their actions are out of character.

When writing a character reference this information should be included at the start of the reference so that the judicial office reading it can see that even with knowledge of the offence, the writer is still prepared to write a good character reference.

Discuss the offence with the person

By discussing the offense with the accused, the writer may then be able to include in their reference that they are aware that the person is sorry or remorseful for what they have done, or cite examples of why it is out of character.

Family or Community involvement

If you know the accused through a family or community association then you can cite examples of your observations about family commitments or involvement with community activities that the offender may have undertaken that you know about.


Sometimes references won’t help at all but in other circumstances, they can have a positive effect in the sentencing process. Nevertheless, it is better to be able to provide them than not.

If you are ever in need of one or of having to write one, it is useful to have these tips in mind.

If you need more information or if you need assistance or advice on how to proceed, please call us on (07) 4724 1152 or email [email protected].