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11 March 2015

As court cases go, few paid much heed to the case of 29-year-old Jesse Armitage, a member of a First Nations community in Ontario. Mr Armitage – who already had a string of minor criminal convictions to his name – had been caught stealing while on parole from a previous term in prison.

But then, at the Gladue courthouse at Toronto’s Old City Hall, came the judge’s ruling. Mr Justice Nakatsuru broke from judicial convention and in the process set the legal community here – and advocates for judicial reform in Canada more broadly – alight.

“I would like to make two short comments,” the judge began, going on to explain that the language of the pending decision had been tailored not for the court, or for the norms of Canadian justice, but for the defendant himself. “For Jesse Armitage,” Justice Nakatsuru said, “I have tried to say what I wanted to say in very plain language. I believe that this is very important for judges to do in every decision.”

“If I could describe Mr Armitage as a tree," he went on to say, “his roots remain hidden beneath the ground… 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.”

What Justice Nakatsuru decreed has sparked a debate among the legal community here: how to convey the letter of the law to those who are at its mercy.

The language of the law so often leaves those having to answer to it lost in the dark. And that’s what Justice Nakatsuru addressed in his decision at Toronto’s Old City Hall.

And if a law gets lost in translation, thanks to the language used to articulate it then it is no surprise that those individuals, or communities – one of Canada’s First Nations communities in this case – feel trapped by a system they can never truly understand.

The Plain Writing Act in the United States – signed by President Obama in 2010 and enhanced a year later – has aimed to tackle this head on by trying to ensure that the work of government, and the justice system, is clear and plain to those subject to its work. Whether Canada considers a similar set of legal reforms in the light of the case of Jesse Armitage seems unlikely at this point. But the importance of the poetry that language written plainly and simply brings should not be overlooked.

Jesse Armitage was sentenced to nine months in a specialist prison facility here in Toronto “so that he may make full use of the help on offer to him” the judge said. Perhaps Canada’s judiciary may make full use of the standard set by the case of Justice Nakatsuru.

Tomos Lewis is Monocle’s Toronto bureau chief.


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