Writing a character reference takes time and requires clarity of thought and expression. For the individual in need of the reference it can be a stressful time as they are hoping that your words of support will assist them in gaining favour. You are being asked to undertake this significant responsibility because the person requesting your assistance believes that you understand them in a professional, personal, or community oriented manner. As such, writing a character reference should never be undertaken lightly and only in good conscience and with honesty.

Because it is highly likely you will be addressing your writing to a legal official, prospective employer, educational institution or community leader, it is important that you follow the proper protocol. There are several ways in which a character letter can be organized however the basic structure will always be relatively the same;

  1. Identify the proper manner in which to address the recipient; for example, Judge, Your Honour, Sir, Ladies and Gentlemen, etc
  2. Evaluate and back up your ability to give honest and clear testimony about the individual and the circumstances
  3. Know the context that requires your commentary; for example, Employment, Volunteer Opportunity, Legal Issues etc
  4. Understand the particular issues requiring your opinion
  5. Be mindful of the due date of the reference and how long the piece should be

The mechanics in which the letter is presented is also important. Before choosing a manner of presentation and delivery, be sure that the writing can be received in the format you have chosen. Therefore, it is important to clarify the way in which the recipient prefers to receive the information such as;

  • Paper Format; handwritten or typed
  • Electronic Format; including Email or Uploaded document to a particular online site, Word Document or PDF
  • Proof of Receipt; such as Certified Mail, or Proof of Service
  • Signature of the author; independently or notarized
  • Correct electronic or mailing address
  • Requested number of copies


The content of the letter is the most important part of any reference and should include all of the following;

  • State that you have been asked to give your opinion of the named person
  • Your relationship to the subject person; employee, friend, family member
  • The length of time you have known them
  • The capacity in which you interact with them
  • Your opinion as to their level of responsibility; personally and/or professionally
  • In the event of a legal issue you may need to comment on; their lack of previous legal issues, their level of remorse, their willingness to make amends etc.
  • Give examples of the type of person they are; “Sharon is a kind and caring individual who unselfishly donates her time to the soup kitchen every Saturday morning.”
  • Include aspects of their community involvement and positive contributions
  • Discuss their work ethic including; punctuality, availability, dependability, attitude etc.
  • Remember to properly date and sign the document

A character reference should never include the following;

  • Speak poorly of others including; other employment candidates, blaming circumstances or blaming others (crime victims, family members, economics)
  • In a legal situation do not suggest the outcome or the penalty to be imparted
  • Any false or misleading statements
  • Irrelevant information

In the event that you are writing for a legal issue it is important that you have the letter reviewed by the individual’s attorney prior to submitting it to the court. Also, the undertaking of authoring a court ordered character reference may require you to be present to validate and testify to your opinions. Therefore it is crucial that you are willing to make yourself available in the event of a hearing.

It is also important that if you believe you are unable to give an honest and clear character recommendation for the person and the circumstances presented, then you should decline the project. It is highly likely that if you attempt to write a deeply personal commentary about an individual that you do not believe in the effort will be fruitless and could cause further damage. However, if you have known the person well and you have personal knowledge and understanding of their genuineness, either professionally or personally, then your words will likely be received in a manner that can only do good.  

If you find yourself in need of assistance with this, or any other legal issue, please contact the law offices of Owen Hodge Lawyers. At Owen Hodge, we are always happy to assist clients in understanding the full ramifications of any and all of your legal needs. Please feel free to call us at your earliest convenience to schedule a consultation at 1800 770 780.