A character reference is a letter demonstrating the good character of a person involved in legal proceedings, written by a person who knows the accused and is willing to vouch for them.
When writing a character reference for legal proceedings, it is important to bear in mind the tone and content of the reference. The reference should be clear and specific to allow a magistrate, registrar or judge to consider the reference in light of the particular charges.
Whilst the style and content of a character reference will differ depending on the proceeding in question, i.e. as between a serious criminal charges or a minor road traffic offence, the goal of all character references is to portray to the court the genuine character of the accused person.
Tone of the reference
Being involved in a court proceeding is a serious event and therefore the tone of a character reference should reflect this by being honest and formal.
The reference should be addressed to the recipient correctly. For example, a case in the Magistrates Court should be addressed to ‘The Presiding Magistrate’ and state the court location. The letter should begin with ‘Your Honour’ and be dated and signed by the author of the reference.
Content of the reference
There are a number of important areas that a character reference should address:
- Introduce yourself:
State what your occupation is and any qualifications you hold.
- Outline your relationship with the person who is the subject of the legal proceedings:
Give a short summary on how you know the person, how long you have known each other for and how often you keep are in contact. Are you a family member, co-worker, employer or friend? The longer you have known the person, greater weight can be placed on your reference by the court.
This does not mean you need to delve into your complete personal history with the individual.
- Acknowledge the charges that have been brought against the person:
You should show that you are aware of the offence the person has been charged with. If the accused person has spoken to you about the charges, it will be helpful to state how the accused feels i.e. they are distressed or upset, they feel remorseful and sorry for what they have done, they have attended counselling, or have sought rehabilitation and treatment.
You may also outline any personal problems or hardships that may have played a part in the accused committing the offence. In relation to problems such as mental illness or drug or alcohol use, you may state any efforts the accused has made to overcome these personal difficulties
It is important you only acknowledge that the person has had the charges brought against them. It is advisable that you do not aim to argue against the charges on behalf of the person and you should not make direct reference to or allude to the fact you believe the person should not have been charged.
- State your opinion of the person’s general character:
You should aim to portray the reputation and general character of the accused person in the community. Do you think it is out of character for the person to have committed the offence? You should also include information favourable to the person, including charity work they have undertaken or any special achievements.
You should never include information you know to be untrue and lying to the court is an offence in itself. A reference should be limited to giving positive affirmations of the person facing charges, and shouldn’t make any suggestions as to the penalty you believe the accused should be given.
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