Writing Character References For Court: What’s Their Purpose?

Last updated on April 19, 2023

man writing on notebook

In January 2023, a 58-year-old Singaporean woman was found guilty of abusing two of her domestic workers. She was sentenced to 10 months’ imprisonment. In her submissions for sentencing, her lawyers submitted about 30 character references from her friends, former domestic workers and other persons who had observed the woman’s interaction with the domestic helpers.

Character references are often used in criminal matters, usually to mitigate a criminal sentence after a conviction is handed down by the court. They typically include descriptions of positive or redeeming qualities about the defendant (i.e., the accused) such as his community service or honest character.

This article will explain:

What is a Character Reference?

In the context of a criminal trial, a character reference is a written statement that provides information about the defendant’s character and personal qualities. It is typically written by someone who knows the defendant well, such as a family member, friend, or employer, and is intended to provide the court with additional information that may be relevant to the sentencing decision.

An example of a character reference is one written by a church group leader about a defendant’s contribution and time to his church, as well as his generosity with the community at large.

What Should a Character Reference Contain?

A character reference should provide an honest and accurate assessment of the individual’s character and personal qualities. The specific information that should be included can vary depending on the purpose of the reference and the individual’s situation, but generally, a character reference should contain the following elements:

  1. Introduction: The reference should begin with a brief introduction that explains the nature of the relationship between the writer and the individual being referenced.
  2. Personal qualities: The reference should provide specific information about the individual’s personal qualities, such as their honesty, integrity, reliability, and work ethic.
  3. Positive attributes: The reference should describe the individual’s positive attributes, such as their kindness, generosity, or leadership skills, and provide examples or anecdotes that illustrate these qualities.
  4. History of good behaviour: If applicable, the reference should describe the individual’s history of good behaviour, such as their record of community service, volunteer work, or other positive contributions to society.
  5. Challenges faced and overcome: The reference should describe any challenges the individual has faced and overcome, such as personal struggles, health issues, or difficult life circumstances, and how they have demonstrated resilience and perseverance.
  6. Closing statement: The reference should end with a brief summary that reaffirms the individual’s positive qualities and expresses confidence in their character.

It’s important to note that a character reference should be written in a professional tone and avoid any unnecessary or irrelevant information. The writer should also be prepared to answer any questions about the reference if called upon to do so.

What is the Purpose of a Character Reference?

The purpose of a character reference in a criminal trial is generally to provide insight into the defendant’s behaviour, attitude, and overall character. The reference may describe the defendant’s history of good behaviour, their contributions to the community, and any other positive attributes that may help the court make a fair and just decision about their sentencing. Character references are hence usually produced at the sentencing stage if the accused person has been convicted (or found guilty) of the offence in question.

In some cases, a character reference may also be used as evidence to support a defence argument that the defendant is of good character and therefore less likely to have committed the crime that they had been accused of (although this is generally not permitted). In criminal proceedings, the fact that the person accused is of good character is relevant. “Character” here is generally limited to both reputation and disposition, and not of particular acts to demonstrate this reputation or disposition. 

Further, under criminal law, character evidence generally cannot be used in court to show that the person acted on a particular occasion in conformity with a particular character trait. For example, the fact that a person has a reputation for lying or exaggerating to family or friends cannot be used to prove that he committed fraud on a particular occasion.

How Will the Court Use Character References in Deciding an Accused’s Sentence?

A character reference is just one of many factors that a court may consider in a criminal trial, and ultimately, it is up to the judge to determine how much weight to give to any particular piece of evidence or reference. In the context of sentencing, the court will weigh the aggravating and mitigating factors of the case. Aggravating factors are circumstances or factors that increase the severity of a crime or the culpability of the offender. These factors are considered during the sentencing phase of a criminal trial and can result in a harsher sentence for the offender. For instance, if the offender has a history of similar offences, this may be considered an aggravating factor.

On the other hand, mitigating factors are circumstances or factors that may reduce the severity of a crime or the culpability of the offender. These factors are considered during the sentencing phase of a criminal trial and can result in a lighter sentence for the offender. The presence of mitigating factors can result in a lighter sentence for the offender, including shorter prison time, lower fines, or other penalties. However, the presence of mitigating factors does not necessarily mean that the offender will receive a lighter sentence, as the judge will consider all relevant factors before making a sentencing decision.

A convicted person’s good character may be treated as a mitigating factor in some circumstances. In the case mentioned above, however, it is unclear if the character references assisted in mitigating the sentence of the Singaporean woman who was convicted of abusing her two helpers. At least one character reference came from the woman’s previous helper which may have been mitigating, but this could have been outweighed by the fact that the abuse against the victims took place over the course of three years, a protracted period of time. This aggravating factor may have trumped any mitigating factor in the form of character references.

Ideally, the character reference should be relevant to the offending conduct in question. For instance, if the offence involves dishonesty, such as in the case of a criminal breach of trust, then the character reference ought to focus on the defendant’s good character traits of honesty or integrity. If the offence is one that involves violence, the character reference should focus on the defendant’s generally peaceful or non-violent nature (save for the incident in question).

A character reference may still be admitted even if it does not relate to the offending conduct in question, but little weight may be placed on that character reference, especially if it is completely irrelevant to the offending conduct in the charge. For instance, in a charge involving violence (e.g. voluntarily causing hurt), character references that speak to the defendant’s honesty and generosity in his community may not be very helpful since they do not relate to the offending conduct in question. One’s good character for honesty, in light of an allegation of violence, is not particularly pertinent to the charge.

If you have been charged or convicted of a criminal offence, do not delay in engaging a lawyer. A lawyer would be best placed to advise you on whether you should produce a character reference and if so, from whom such references should be obtained and how to craft one that is relevant to your defence and/or sentencing submissions.

A carefully crafted character reference may go a long way in providing the court with insight into your overall character and may lead to a fair and just decision on sentencing.

Get in touch with our criminal lawyers here.

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