Character References Must Disclose Knowledge of Offences

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Character references are normally handed-up to a court during the sentencing hearing; which is when the court decides the penalty that will be imposed on a defendant.

These references are an important way to show the defendant has accepted responsibility and shown remorse for their conduct by not just pleading guilty (in the case of a guilty plea), but by admitting it to those who are important and/or close to him or her. 

Those who provide such references – who is known as ‘referees’ – should in fairness be made aware of the whole of the circumstances relating to the person to whom they are attesting before they ‘put pen to paper’ and vouch for another’s character.

It stands to reason, then, that a character reference should make clear that the referee is aware of the document’s intended use.

Referee regrets providing character reference

But the fact of the matter is that not all defendants inform their referees of all relevant facts, such as the nature of the offences and purpose of the reference.

Recently, a football cheer squad figure named Jeff ‘Joffa’ Corfe elicited a reference which was used during his sentencing hearing for child sexual offences from a referee who later asserted he was not made aware of the purpose of the document.

44-year old Corfe has pleaded guilty in the County Court of Victoria to sexually abusing a 14-year old boy in 2005.

The case received media attention and the referee later indicated he would not have provided the document had he known what it was going to be used for.

General references are not good enough

It is surprising the presiding judge allowed the reference to be used because, as a general rule, for such a document to have any weight it should make clear the referee is aware of the nature and seriousness of the offence or offences before the court.

Character references should also explicitly state that the referee is aware of any previous offences for which the defendant was convicted, as well as outline the nature of those offences.

When properly prepared, character references are a factor which can “mitigate” (or lessen) the seriousness of the offending conduct, which can help convince the court to exercise some leniency.

Here’s a basic guide on character references and what a good character reference should contain.

What are character references?

A character reference is a letter to the court written by a person who knows you, submitted so that a Magistrate or Judge during a sentencing hearing. The purpose of a character reference is to demonstrate your good character as well as any special circumstances that should be taken into account in sentencing.

A character reference can be provided by anyone who knows you, who is also of good reputation and does not have a criminal record. This can include:

  • Your employer or a work colleague.
  • Your doctor.
  • A family friend.
  • A member of a club or organisation for which you belong.

Whilst close family members and friends can also supply character references, they are generally given less weight due to perceptions of inherent bias.

What format should a character reference follow?

A character reference should be typed on letterhead as well as signed and dated by the person providing the reference. The reference should be addressed to either ‘the Presiding Magistrate’ or ‘Your Honour’.

Only the original signed and dated character reference should be supplied to the court, not a copy.

A character reference should include statements by the person providing the reference regarding:

  • What they do for a living and any special positions or titles held (eg. manager at X or a lawyer admitted to practice in NSW).
  • How long they have known you, how they know you and how often they see you (eg. “I’ve worked with Jason for 6 years at our mechanics shop, I see him daily at work and know him quite well”).
  • That they are aware of the charges against you and the nature and seriousness of the charges.
  • That they are aware of any other offences committed by you in the past.
  • If relevant, that the current offence is “out of character” for you.
  • If relevant, that you have expressed remorse to them about the offence.
  • If relevant, that you have made positive changes which should be taken into account by the court, including changes in behaviour or participation in treatment programs.

The character reference should not give an opinion about the appropriate penalty that should be given or comment about the law, the police or the role of the court. A character reference should also only include truthful statements.

What needs to be disclosed?

It’s crucial that when you ask someone to supply a character reference you disclose exactly what charges you are being sentenced for, as well as any relevant criminal history.

You should also disclose to the person supplying the reference whether you have pled guilty to the offence, or were found guilty following a trial.

This disclosure should be reflected in the character reference. Eg. “I’m aware Jeremy has pled guilty to theft charges related to stealing from a liquor store. I’m also aware that he was convicted of stealing a car in his youth”.

Supplying a character reference in the incorrect format or not following the required disclosure rules could mean that it will not be used during sentencing, or at least that it will be given far less weight.

Pleading guilty to a criminal or traffic offence?

If you have pleaded guilty to a criminal or traffic offence, or are intending to do so, call Sydney Criminal Lawyers anytime on (02) 9261 8881 to arrange a free initial appointment with an experienced defence lawyer who will advise you of your options and the best way forward, and fight for the best possible outcome. 

Together with our head office in the Sydney CBD, we have experienced criminal defence lawyers in Parramatta, Liverpool, and other convenient office locations across the Sydney Metropolitan area, and beyond.

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Jarryd Bartle

Jarryd Bartle is an Associate Lecturer in Criminology and Justice Studies at RMIT University and a consultant for the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative, which investigates claims of wrongful conviction and advocates for systemic reform to protect against miscarriages of justice.

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