When facing a criminal charge an accused person’s prior good character can be a very powerful evidentiary matter to rely upon.
An accused person can rely on good character, particularly if they have never previously been charged with a criminal offence or had formal complaints made about their behaviour. Ordinarily, any good or bad past behaviour of an accused is not admissible at trial unless the accused deliberately seeks to raise past behaviour.
If an accused person raises good character, the trier of fact must be directed that in determining the accused person’s guilt, the evidence of their good character can be used in two ways:
- The fact that a person is of good character is relevant to the likelihood of whether they have committed the offence alleged. Good character can be taken into account to reason that the accused is unlikely to have committed the offence.
- Good character can also be used to support the accused’s credibility. The trier of fact can reason that an accused person who is of good character is less likely to lie about whether they have committed the offence charged or to give a false account.
If seeking to rely on good character, whether in a Local Court hearing or a District or Supreme Court trial, your legal representatives should alert the prosecution to the fact that good character will be relied upon and ask the prosecution to confirm whether they will call any evidence to rebut good character.
If there is no evidence to rebut good character, the court must direct the jury (or the Judge or Magistrate must direct themselves) as detailed above.
If there is some evidence to rebut some aspects of an accused’s good character then good character evidence can be led in a limited manner. For example, if the admitted good character evidence is limited to that of an accused’s lack of prior criminal antecedents, and not any more generally than that, the prosecutor would only be permitted to lead in response any evidence they have of past criminal antecedents. It would not be open slather to lead any unproven past claims of bad character.
Good character evidence can be led in various ways. It can be led through the police officer in charge of the matter who will agree that an accused has no prior charges. In some circumstances, character witnesses can be called in the defence case. Usually friends or family of an accused who have known the accused for a reasonable period of time will come to court to give evidence about an accused’s character. Character witnesses will be asked to comment on their observations of the accused that are relevant to the allegation(s) being dealt with. For example, if the allegation involves an accused punching a stranger in a park, the character witnesses may be asked if they have ever seen the accused be aggressive towards anyone especially someone they didn’t know.
It is very important that character witnesses are fully aware of the charges an accused person is facing. Character witnesses are often asked in court to confirm that they are aware of the charges and that knowing the accused has been so charged that does not change their view as to the accused’s good character. It is critical for your legal team to discuss this with any potential character witnesses ahead of the court date.
Evidence of good character is not a defence to a criminal charge. However, it can be a very persuasive and effective consideration for the trier of fact when they consider whether the Crown has proved an accused person’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
If you have been charged with a criminal offence and good character is available, it is crucial to commence work as soon as possible on preparing good character evidence. Our experienced team are available to discuss good character and other aspects of your matter to ensure we properly tell your side of the story and prepare the best possible defence.
Helen Christinson, Partner