An Ontario judge's written decision in a young aboriginal man’s court case is being hailed as a unique, inspiring and empathetic legal ruling.
Justice Shaun Nakatsuru took four months to craft a sentencing report for Jesse Armitage, a 29-year-old with a lengthy criminal record who was charged with theft.
While some judges would spend as little as a few minutes on a basic oral decision, Nakatsuru delved into Armitage’s history to understand how the “troubled” son of an aboriginal family had come to stand before him.
The ruling was handed down on Feb. 11, and is now winning praise in the legal community.
- Read Justice Nakatsuru's entire sentencing report
- Listen to Metro Morning's interview with lawyer Steve Benmor
"What’s different about this case is the extreme and overt empathy that Justice Nakatsuru shows for 29-year-old Jesse Armitage, but more importantly, for the family that he comes from and the native Canadian community that he comes from," Steve Benmor, a family lawyer in Toronto who was wowed by the judge’s report, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday.
'I believe that he had come to a point in his life where he was ready. Ready for a chance to change.' - Justice Shaun Nakatsuru, Ontario Court of Justice
Benmor praised Nakatsuru for departing from the norm, saying he was amazed to see a judge treat a ruling "almost as a diary entry."
Early in the decision, Nakatsuru notes he is writing in intentionally plain language — something judges, himself included — often don't do.
"In this case, I am writing for Jesse Armitage," Nakatsuru writes.
The judge writes clearly about Armitage’s history of crime — often theft from businesses and breaches of probation.
"Mr. Armitage has found himself in a pattern of minor criminality that he is unable to escape from," Nakatsuru writes.
The judge also writes plainly about Armitage’s family, which includes a grandmother who survived the residential school system and rarely speaks about it, other family members who have suffered from alcohol abuse, and a son he had as a 19-year-old and rarely sees.
"One important thing I must consider is the past injustices done to the aboriginal peoples in this country," Nakatsuru writes. "How that has affected the present. How that has affected Mr. Armitage. I must also consider the present problem of the over-incarceration of aboriginal offenders."
He continues: "I believe he knew that there was no other way for him to get healthy. I believe that he had come to a point in his life where he was ready. Ready for a chance to change."
Ruling 'inspirational', lawyer says
Nakatsuru initially gave Armitage a 14-month conditional sentence to be served in the community, with several conditions, including reappearing before the judge.
When Armitage missed a meeting with Nakatsuru and was arrested again for another minor crime, the two met again.
At this point, Armitage asked for a nine-month conditional jail sentence so he could be sent to the St. Lawrence Valley Treatment Centre.
"He asked for this because he wanted to be sure he had enough time in custody to fully make use of the help available," Nakatsuru writes.
Benmor said the judge could only have this kind of insight after looking at the entire context of Armitage’s case — rather than just focusing on one specific incident.
He said the ruling was an “inspirational decision” for anyone who works in the legal system.
"If I could describe Mr. Armitage as a tree, his roots remain hidden beneath the ground. I can see what he is now. I can see the trunk. I can see the leaves. But much of what he is and what has brought him before me, I cannot see. They are still buried.
"But I am sure that some of those roots involve his aboriginal heritage and ancestry. They help define who he is. They have been a factor in his offending. They must be taken into account in his sentencing."