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Character References in Victoria

When a person is charged with criminal offences, one way they can provide information to the court is by tendering character references. A character reference is a letter to the court from someone with a good reputation in the community. The letter usually includes details about the accused’s personality and character and gives the court a better understanding of your circumstances. A character reference may help you to show the court that you are an honest person who has the respect of others and may lead the court to see your offending in a more sympathetic light.

The Victorian courts require that certain guidelines be met when writing a character reference. These have been set out in detail below.

Who can write a character reference?

A character reference can help show the court that the crime committed was a one-off event and that you are usually not inclined to commit offences. As such, it is important that a person who knows you well enough to make this distinction clear to the court writes the reference.

A reference may be written by anybody in the community that you choose but is most persuasive when it is written by someone who knows you in the context of work or study such as teachers, current or past employers and colleagues.

If your offending is drug- or alcohol-related and you are undertaking rehabilitation or counselling, you may wish to have the health practitioner overseeing you to write a reference.

How to structure a character reference

All character references should be set out in a formal fashion. This includes having the reference typed and printed on letterhead where possible. Handwritten references will only be accepted if the court can clearly read and understand the contents.

Other structural guidelines include dating and signing the reference, and addressing the reference to the appropriate person i.e. “To the Presiding Judge/Magistrate”. Other references to the judge should be to “Your Honour”.

What to avoid when writing a character reference

The court will not accept any character references that include slanderous or aggressive language. Therefore, you must ensure that the character reference is written in a formal and respectful tone.

The character reference cannot include any legal opinions or suggestions as to the penalty that should be imposed.

The court will also not allow any personal opinions of the referee regarding whether the charge laid on the offender is fair.

What a character reference should set out

The courts in Victoria require that a character reference cover the following points in specific detail;

  •  The referee must first introduce themselves and provide their personal details, including full name and occupation.
  • The referee must explain how they are of good standing in society and explain their relationship to the offender.
  • The referee must explain that they are aware of the charge that has been laid against the offender and an acknowledgement that they are aware of how the offender wishes to plead.
  • The referee must provide a description of their opinion of the offender’s character, this will include examples of their past interactions with the offender.
  • The referee must explain to the court how the offender will be disadvantaged if convicted of the offence committed (where applicable).
  • The referee must also state their opinion regarding whether or not the offence was a one-off incident or whether the offender is receiving medical treatment.

Different references for different charges

Despite the general guidelines set out above, there is no single way to write your character reference. Each offence carries a different set of elements that will require the referee to draw on different parts of the offender’s character to support the case.

Drink driving charges

If you have been charged with drink driving or a traffic infringement, the character reference will need to include specific details as to how the offender has rehabilitated himself or herself. The reference will also need to explain to the court that the offender has taken steps to ensure they will not drive after consuming alcohol and they are aware that their actions were incorrect.

Criminal offences

If you have been charged with a criminal offence including assault, the character reference will need to focus more on the non-violent character of the offender. If the offence was a one-off incident, the reference will need to explain that the offender is not usually of a violent nature. If the offence is not a one-off incident, the reference will need to explain to the court that the offender is taking steps (counselling, medication) to correct their behaviour so that they are not a threat to 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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