(A Guest Column from Niamh McMahon, commercial lawyer)

I have been giving some thought recently to the requirement of many organisations, institutes, professional bodies and memberships for an applicant to be of good character. Words like good standing, principled, honest, moral, ethical and trustworthy often appear. Almost without exception, good character is demonstrated by an applicant proving that he or she does not have a criminal record (which incidentally might have been clean-slated). There is often an additional requirement for referees to be named or written references to be provided.

Although the absence of a criminal record and the provision of one or two names of people who are bound to vouch for an applicant’s good character are important, do they really mean that a person has good character? I think not. You need only to reflect for a nanosecond on the fallout from the GFC which resulted in a number of supposedly reputable professionals being found guilty of serious criminal charges and being sent to prison.

Is there a better way to test of good character? I suppose you could challenge an applicant to answer a series of questions which could then be used to test the applicant’s good character. But that probably wouldn’t be very effective as an applicant would surely be astute enough to provide the answers which are sought rather than openly display characteristics that might not be welcomed (i.e. tell lies). A face to face interview might not be entirely effective either for the same reason.

The problem is that any alternative test of good character inevitably rests on the subjective opinions held by a few to cast judgment on many. Such tests lead to peers approving peers and like choosing like. So, we could probably say goodbye to gender diversity on boards, goodbye to representation of the views of the minor parties in parliament (touchy subject right now), goodbye to initiatives to eliminate all sorts of prejudices and discriminations which most people deny they hold.

So is there any point in having a requirement of good character? Is it a waste of time to refer to good standing, principled, honest, moral, ethical and trustworthy and other fluffy adjectives as requirements? I think so. I don’t think there is any safe way to measure good character because, after all, it is a personal, subjective thing. Like it or not, we are all biased and we bring our own ‘baggage/good character’ to every decision we make. What needs to be avoided is an Orwellian Animal Farm scenario where the pigs look in the window and have difficulty distinguishing between who are the human beings and who are the animals. So let’s ditch the good character and references requirements, check the criminal record and leave it at that.

So, how is your criminal record looking?