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Character References in the ACT

A person who is charged with criminal offences in the ACT may wish to provide character references to the court prior to sentencing. This is one way of giving the court some insight into who the defendant is and how they are viewed by others in the community. In some circumstances, a character reference may encourage the judge or magistrate to deliver a less severe penalty by highlighting the offender’s prior good character and/or steps they are taking to address the causes of their offending. It is important to know exactly what you should and should not include in a character reference for the court. Below are some general guidelines as to who may act as your referee and what content to include.

Who can write the reference?

As noted above, a character reference is an opportunity for you to demonstrate to the court that the offence committed was uncharacteristic; or to show that you have taken steps to rehabilitate yourself. In order to effectively persuade the court of these elements, it is important to choose a referee who knows about your life and the offence committed, and can write a reference that is as detailed as possible.

When choosing a referee, there are no hard and fast rules as to who may write the reference. A referee can be a family member, friend, neighbour or even co-worker. However, for some offences, it may be a good idea to choose an impartial third party to write a reference.

What not to say in a character reference

Before you set out to write a character reference, it is important to note the following points. The reference will be delivered in court and therefore, you must respect court etiquette by avoiding the following errors:

  • Do not use a reference that is off topic or out-dated
  • Do not write a reference longer than a single page, unless completely necessary
  • Do not include legal opinions such as an opinion on whether the charge was justified or not
  • Do not tell the court how they should penalise the offender
  • Do not include details of previous crimes committed unless necessary
  • Do not use aggressive or disrespectful language in the reference.

What a character reference should set out

There are various rules in the ACT that must be adhered to for both the structure and content of the character reference. When structuring the reference, it is important to note the following:

  • Type the reference on A4 paper, where possible (handwritten references are acceptable provided they are legible)
  • The reference should be printed on letterhead if possible
  • The reference must refer correctly to the Judge depending on the level of court hearing the case i.e. “the Presiding Magistrate” or “the Presiding Judge”.

When writing the content of the character reference, the court requires that the following points be covered in detail:

  • The reference must outline the referees background and whether they are of good standing in the community
  • A statement by the referee that they are aware of the offence committed by the offender
  • A detailed description (including personal examples) of why the offender is of good character, or details of the offenders rehabilitation
  • An outline of any hardships the offender may face if handed down a severe penalty.

Different types of charges

No two charges are the same, and therefore, a character reference must appeal to the nature of the crime by including only those characteristics of the offender that relate specifically to the crime committed.

For instance, a drink driving charge will typically centre on the rehabilitation of the offender and steps the offender has taken to ensure that they will not step behind the wheel again whilst intoxicated. A serious assault charge will require details of how the offender is not of a violent nature, how the offence committed was a one-off incident or that the offender is undertaking counselling.

Further information

As stated above, any person can provide a character reference. However, in some circumstances (drink driving/ traffic offences) it may be wise to obtain a further reference from an impartial third party. This further reference will demonstrate to the court that somebody outside of your family/friendship circle recognises that you are not a threat to yourself or the community.

If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Go To Court Lawyers.


Michelle Makela

Michelle Makela is a Legal Practice Director at Go To Court Lawyers. She holds a Juris Doctor, a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and a Master of Criminology. She was admitted to practice in 2006. Michelle has over 15 years experience in the legal industry, working across commercial litigation, criminal law, family law and estate planning. 

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