What is a reference for court?
A reference for court, also called a character reference, helps to show the court that people in your daily life think highly of you and that you are a person of good character.
A character reference is usually provided to the court if you are convicted of an offence (either after a plea of guilty or after being found guilty at a trial) to help the court decide on the appropriate penalty. It shows the court that you have good qualities and that a more lenient penalty (sentence) may be appropriate.
For more information, go to Appearing in court on a criminal charge and Pleading guilty in the Magistrates Court.
General good character is one factor the court will consider when deciding whether or not to grant a spent conviction order. Character references in support of spent conviction orders are dealt with in more detail below.
Who should write my character reference?
People who may be able to write a character reference for you include:
- long-time family friends
- former teachers
- past or present employers
- people of special standing in the community
- your family doctor or local priest
- officials of sporting or social clubs you have belonged to.
In some circumstances a letter from a family member can also be very helpful. That person must know about the trouble you have been in. They should be able to openly discuss the difficulties you and possibly others in the family are facing. A family member may also be able to point to something that gives hope about your future and about your potential to stay out of trouble.
What format should the character reference be written in?
Where possible the reference should be typed and on A4 paper. A neat handwritten reference is fine if the writer does not have access to a computer or typewriter. One page is an adequate length for a character reference.
The reference should be dated, signed and addressed to:
- the Presiding Magistrate if the charge is being dealt with in the Magistrates Court;
- the Presiding Judge if the charge is being dealt with in the District or Supreme Court.
What should my character reference say?
Where possible the character reference should:
- be written recently
- be written specifically for your court appearance - a reference written for another purpose, such as a job application, is not as useful
- state that the writer is aware of the charge(s) before the court
- state why the writer thinks you are a good person or why they believe that your behaviour in committing the offence was out of character for you.
It is a serious criminal offence for a person writing a character reference to mislead the court or for you to encourage them to mislead the court.
The character reference should not:
- attempt to discuss legal matters
- state that you did not commit the offence
- speculate about whether you intended to commit the offence
- suggest what specific penalty you should receive.
What if I am applying for a spent conviction order?
Spent conviction orders at the time of sentence can be hard to obtain. Usually, they will only be granted for certain types of offences, where you have no relevant record and there are good reasons for not recording a criminal conviction.
You should get legal advice to find out whether you are likely to receive a spent conviction order. If you are appearing in the Magistrates Court, you can get advice from the duty lawyer. Go to Duty Lawyer Service for more information about the duty lawyer.
If you are applying for a spent conviction order, it is very helpful if the court is provided with one or more character references.
A character reference in support of a spent conviction order should comply with the requirements for any character reference but should also indicate:
- whether the person writing the reference thinks you are likely to commit a similar offence again
- specific reasons why a conviction should not be recorded against you, ie the effect a conviction will have on you.
For more information, go to Spent conviction orders at the time of sentencing and What spent conviction orders do.
Do I need a reference from my doctor?
If you are currently under medical care or were under medical care at the time of the offence, a letter from your doctor may help the court when considering the appropriate penalty (sentence) for you.
Where possible the letter should state:
- the date the letter is written
- that the doctor is aware of the charges before the court
- how long the doctor has known you and/or been treating you
- what your medical condition is
- your prescribed medication, if any
- any other matters that your doctor thinks are relevant or useful for the court.
Do I need a reference from my counsellor?
If you are having any type of counselling or are on any other sort of program it is useful for the court to be aware of this. It is also useful for the court to be informed about any progress you have made on a program.
Where possible, you should bring a letter to court from your counsellor which states:
- the date the letter is written
- that your counsellor is aware of the charges before the court
- the reason you are receiving counselling and how long you have been attending
- how you are responding to counselling and whether, in their view, you should continue with counselling
- any future appointments which you may have with the counsellor.
Do I need a reference from my employer?
If your employer can provide information about your character that will assist the court when sentencing you, then you should ask them for a character reference.
If your employer cannot provide information about your character, it is still helpful to have a letter from your employer simply stating that you are employed. The fact that you are employed is a factor the court may take into account when considering the appropriate penalty. You should make sure this letter is dated so the court knows that the information is up to date.
What references do I need if I have a disability?
If you have a disability, it is very important that you seek legal advice about your charges before you plead guilty, in case you have a defence.
If you are appearing in the Magistrates Court, you can seek advice from the duty lawyer in court. Go to Duty Lawyer Service for more information about the duty lawyer service.
If you will be pleading guilty, it is important that the court has information about any disability you may have, before it imposes a penalty (sentences) you.
If possible, you should bring a letter to court which sets out the nature and history of your disability. Your doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, counsellor, a family member or any other responsible person who is aware of your disability and the surrounding circumstances, can write this letter.
If you cannot get a letter, make sure that you tell the court about your disability before you are sentenced.
Last reviewed: 13/02/2013