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How to Write a Character Reference Letter for Use on Sentencing in Canada

                    If you are pleading guilty or are found guilty of a criminal offence in Canada, your lawyer may ask you to obtain 5 or 6 character reference letters for use on sentencing from people who know your general character and reputation in the community. Obtaining such reference letters is a good reason for an adjournment. It is also a good reason why you will want to retain a lawyer for the guilty plea rather than pleading guilty with the help of duty counsel.The object of course is to convince the Judge (and perhaps the Crown Attorney) that you are a fine upstanding citizen in the community, that you feel terrible remorse for what you have done, and that the wrongful behaviour will never be repeated.

                    I suggest approaching  long-time family friends, a pastor or priest, a sports coach, fellow employees or an employer, and leaders of community and cultural organizations of which you are a member. There are people out there who know you well and who are anxious that you should be given a second chance.You will need to be truthful and tell them the whole story of what happened. They need to know your version of the events and the victim's version too. You'll need to tell them how you feel about what happened and your fears of what the Judge may do on sentencing.

                    A letter will be very poor and of no use on sentencing if it merely states something like: XYZ has approached me and asked me to write a character reference letter. I recommend XYZ for employment.

                    A letter will be very helpful if the author is a well-respected person. The letter should contain details of how long you have been known to the author and in what capacity. The letter will be more effective if the author indicates that he or she has seen you recently and frequently in situations related to trust and responsibility. A family member can sometimes be one of several references especially if they are able to report on the individual's long term struggle with a particular problem. 

                    A victim can write a letter, but only of their own volition, NOT AT THE REQUEST OF THE ACCUSED. If in doubt, a victim may want to retain his or her own private lawyer for advice. Accused persons and their families should not initiate contact with victims directly or indirectly. A victim's letter indicating contact during a bail order prohibiting contact can be disastrous.

                    The letter should not minimize the  seriousness of the offence or give excuses such as "the behaviour is simply the result of peer pressure". The letter should note that you recognize the seriousness of the offence (if you do) and its impact on the victim and society as a whole.

                      The letter should be requested directly by the accused, not by a parent, spouse, or helper. It is only by going to see the author of the letter yourself that you will be able to convince him or her of your acceptance of responsibility and remorse. 

                        The letter can be addressed "To the Court", "To the Honourable Judge", to the defence lawyer, or "To Whom it May Concern". It should be typed on letterhead or good quality paper and SIGNED by the author. Preferably you will bring the signed original to your lawyer in advance of the Court date. At a distance and in an emergency you can use a fax or email but an email (without a signature) carries little weight. There should be two additional copies, one for the defence lawyer and one for the Crown attorney. The original is for the Judge and the copies are for the lawyers.

                        A letter from a doctor should not be written on a prescription memo.

                        DO NOT let the accused or his mother type all the letters up in advance and simply ask people to sign them. The author of the letter should prepare it independently of the accused or her parents. Multiple letters should not all be in the same font  with the same structure as each other. 

                        DO NOT, however, give a copy to the Crown Attorney or the original to the Judge until you have shown the letter to your defence lawyer or to duty counsel. Sometimes a letter will do more harm than good and you need good legal advice before you use it.

                        BEWARE that anything you say to your proposed character reference MAY BE USED AGAINST YOU IN COURT. If you bare your soul to someone there is nothing but honour to preclude them from passing the information on to the police. In some cases, individuals such as psychologists, may have a professional responsibility to reveal information you thought was confidential, eg. other child sexual abuse that the police, Crown, and Court don't know about yet.

                        Your reference author is usually welcome to attend Court if he or she so wishes. They usually won't be asked to give evidence but your lawyer may find their attendance of assistance in explaining a unique situation to the Crown or the Court. A reference letter author who attends Court should wear business or church clothing.

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Copyright 2018 Stephen Biss



Stephen R. Biss, Barrister & Solicitor

470 Hensall Circle, Suite 303
Mississauga, Ontario
L5A 3V4

905-273-3322  or 1-877-273-3322


Advertisement. Any legal opinions expressed at this site relate to the Province of Ontario, Canada only. If you reside or carry on business in any other jurisdiction please consult a lawyer, solicitor, or attorney in your own jurisdiction. WARNING: All information contained herein is provided for the purpose of providing basic information only and should not be construed as formal legal advice. The author disclaims any and all liability resulting from reliance upon such information. You are strongly encouraged to seek and retain professional legal advice before relying upon any of the information contained herein.