The Federal Court has heard a judge being personally sued for wrongly jailing a man who was then assaulted while imprisoned, had subjected him to “the grossest parody of a hearing”.
- The man said he was assaulted, humiliated and threatened with rape while in jail
- The Family Court overturned the jail sentence on appeal, describing it as a “gross miscarriage of justice”
- A barrister for the judge said he had made a “mistake”
In a rare case, Salvatore Vasta, a judge in the Federal Circuit Court is being sued after jailing a Queensland man during a routine property settlement dispute with his ex-wife.
Judges are typically immune from civil liability.
The man, who can only be referred to by the pseudonym “Mr Stradford”, was given a 12-month jail sentence in 2018 after Judge Vasta found him in contempt of court for not providing financial documents.
Mr Stradford, who represented himself in the civil case, said he tried his best to produce them.
The full bench of the Family Court overturned the jail sentence on appeal, describing it as a “gross miscarriage of justice”.
Mr Stradford’s barrister, Perry Herzfeld SC, told the Federal Court his client was subjected to “the grossest parody of a court hearing”.
Mr Herzfeld said Judge Vasta erred in jurisdiction by jailing the man before first finding him guilty and allowing him to respond.
He linked it to “the court of The Queen of Hearts in the jurisdiction of Wonderland”.
“Her catchphrase was always sentence first, verdict afterwards,” Mr Herzfeld said.
“That’s what happened here, except there was actually never a verdict.”
The court heard Judge Vasta told Mr Stradford he hoped he had brought his toothbrush and he “didn’t care” that the man’s wife did not want him jailed.
Mr Stradford spent six nights in jail, which involved being transferred from a watch house to the maximum-security Brisbane Correctional Centre at Wacol.
The plaintiff claimed he had an anxiety attack in a prison van where another detainee tried to strangle him.
Mr Stradford said he was also humiliated, assaulted, and threatened with rape by other inmates.
He is suing for about $2 million damages for deprivation of liberty and serious psychiatric injuries, which he said affected his ability to work.
The court heard Judge Vasta made “bewildering” claims he only jailed the man because he thought another judge had found him guilty of contempt.
Judge Vasta’s barrister, Jeremy Kirk, SC said his client simply made a mistake and stressed that Mr Stratford was released from jail soon after the mistake was discovered.
‘The factual mistake he made had legal consequences,” Mr Kirk said.
“He is a human being.”
Mr Stradford’s case is that the state of Queensland, and the Commonwealth are vicariously liable for his ordeal because court and prison staff acted on the judge’s orders.
The trial continues.