How to Write a Character Reference to the Court

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Sydney man Matthew Laba pleaded guilty to offences relating to impersonating a lawyer in courts across the greater Sydney region on 6 November 2023.

The 29-year-old defendant didn’t appear in Downing Centre Local Court to enter his plea though, rather his criminal defence lawyer submitted it on his behalf.

Mr Laba was accused last January of being unlicensed to practice law in relation to representing a Bondi café owner. And whilst this matter was dropped, the Law Society of NSW investigated Laba, who’d represented four people in court, only to find he’s not a lawyer, and he’d never been admitted.

The fake lawyer was charged with four counts of entity engage in legal practice when unqualified, contrary to section 10 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law (NSW). The maximum penalty that applies to this offence is a $27,500 fine and/or 2 years imprisonment.

Two counts of the offence of unqualified entity advertising legal services were the further charges the impersonator faced. And this crime is a contained in section 11 of the Uniform Law and carries with it a maximum penalty of a $27,500 fine.

Mr Laba’s lawyer who entered his guilty plea would have also provided New South Wales Local Court Magistrate Clare Farnan with at least one character reference regarding his client and, as is ideal in most cases where a person is admitting their guilty, the legal professional is likely to have handed over three references.

Indeed, character references for court serve to provide the presiding magistrate or judge with background detail relating to the accused’s life and how this reflects on the incident before the court, and a well written reference, or several such documents, can result in a more lenient penalty.

Conveying good character

A character reference is a statement from a person who knows the defendant personally. And the individual writing the reference should provide details regarding the person’s character, their reputation in the community and their general behaviour.

What the writer needs to convey to the presiding judicial officer is evidence that establishes good character in relation to the accused, as well as any steps they may have taken that can be expected to reduce the likelihood of any future offending.

The trick to a good character reference is outlining how a defendant has shown their good character or that they’re unlikely to reoffend without simply stating that. This can be done via descriptions of concrete examples of how the accused has acted in a reputable way in the past.

An example of how one can convey prior good behaviour is a description of the defendant having intervened in a dispute, whilst in terms of concerns around recidivism, an example would be where a person who had offended while intoxicated, then having been attending Alcoholics Anonymous.

An experienced criminal defence lawyer will also stress that it’s important not to exaggerate when writing a reference, that the writer should use their regular language, but not be too colourful in doing so, and it’s important not to attempt to instruct the presiding officer on how to proceed.

Details to include in a character reference

A reference should make clear that the writer is aware of what’s transpiring in court. The referee should state the offence/s involved in the matter and they should outline their awareness of the nature of the offence or the “seriousness” of the charge.

A referee ought to point to the accused having committed the offences as being “out of character”, or if they do have priors, these should be cited, as well as any remorse they may have expressed, such as “John told me he regrets having perpetrated such a serious offence”.

If the crime involved a victim, the referee should outline that the defendant is aware of how their crime has impacted them and they’re regret for having caused this, while if the offence could result in a loss of licence in circumstances where it’s vital, say, for employment, this should also be noted.

Other key information to be included in a reference are details regarding who the writer is. What the referee does for a living, as well as any respected positions they may hold in the community, as well as any positive contribution they make to it.

The referee also needs to detail the nature of their relationships to the accused, and express how they know them, for instance, if they’re a brother or a work colleague, the length of the relationship should be noted, as well as observations about their character and how often they see each other.

The format of a character reference

A reference should be typed, if possible, with a letterhead, or otherwise list the writer’s details, such as name, address and phone number. Then it should be dated, followed by a line addressing the presiding magistrate or judge, the court should be named next and then a “Your Honour” to open.

The statment should be concise. Judicial officers have a plethora of documents submitted to them on a daily basis, so a long-winded piece could result in annoyance rather than a favourable mindset in regard to the subject of the reference. And a one-and-a-half-page limit is usually recommended.

The opening must be followed by lines introducing the referee, how they know the accused, the nature of the offence and any favourable observations about the behaviour of the defendant at times when they haven’t been the subject of arrest.

Any details of remorse shown, suggested examples that convey little likelihood of reoffending, as well as any circumstances in the subject’s background that may have influenced their offending can be explained to the presiding officer.

And the character reference for court should end with a concluding line, such as “yours faithfully” or “yours sincerely”, followed by the signature of the referee, which is then followed by their name typed or printed in line with how the rest of the document is written.

The effect of a reference on sentencing

Mr Laba falsely presented himself as a lawyer because he had never been in the possession of a practising certificate in his life.

He was as a consequence sentenced by Magistrate Daniel Covington in mid-December 2023 to a 9 month intensive correction order, to be served concurrently with an 18 month community correction orders and fined $16,000.

Of course, how one reference, or ideally three printed and signed references, with three copies of each then presented to the court, reflects on a sentence is impossible to evaluate, as many aspects of a case are taken into account when the process of sentencing is undertaken.

But one thing that can certainly be said for Laba is that if his lawyer hadn’t insisted upon quality references to mitigate the severity of his punishment, then the magistrate’s already liberal application of noncustodial sentences, or good behaviour bonds, could have been more severe.

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