A CONTROVERSIAL Brisbane judge shouted at a woman and spoke to her in an “enraged, aggressive and intimidating’’ tone, three judges have found.
The Full Court of the Federal Court judges said while the unrepresented woman was mostly respectful, Federal Circuit Court Judge Salvatore Vasta was “argumentative and overbearing’’.
Justice Andrew Greenwood, Anthony Besanko and John Reeves listened to an audio recording and read a transcript of a hearing before Judge Vasta in April last year.
The judges said Judge Vasta never stopped questioning or arguing with Ms Dennis, until minutes from the end of her submissions.
They said one of the most significant moments was when Judge Vasta adopted “an enraged and intimidating tone of voice’’ while shouting at Queensland woman Susan Dennis for talking over him.
They found that a fair-minded lay observer might reasonably think that Judge Vasta may not have brought an impartial and unprejudiced mind to the question he was to decide.
It displayed apprehended bias, the judges said.
It is the latest of a series of successful appeals against decisions by Judge Vasta, who is being mentored.
The Full Court judges commented on Judge Vasta’s approach to the hearing and the tone and volume of his voice while speaking to Ms Dennis, who did not have a lawyer.
She had brought a Federal Circuit Court claim for $750,000 compensation against the Commonwealth Bank, which had refused her a loan or extension of a credit facility.
Judge Vasta dismissed her claim on April 27 last year, after an application by the bank.
But on November 30 last year, Federal Court justice Darryl Rangiah granted Ms Dennis leave to appeal the decision, saying there was an arguable case of apprehended bias.
“Save for the final few minutes, we cannot find in 25 pages of transcript, any passage of submissions or answers from the appellant beyond seven to 10 lines,’’ the judges said.
In one exchange with Ms Dennis, Judge Vasta appeared to refer to the movie The Castle.
The judge said, “See, you are coming with me — before me — as if, you know, you can just make a submission that it’s, that it’s Mabo; it’s the Constitution; it’s the ‘vibe’.
“It doesn’t work like this. It may work in movies, but it doesn’t work here.’’
The judges said Judge Vasta kept interrupting Ms Dennis.
“He is too ready to express his exasperation, to belittle (Ms Dennis’) arguments and (on a number of occasions) to raise his voice,’’ the judges said.
They said it had been important for them to listen to the audio recording of the hearing.
“This recording indicates that the primary judge raised his voice and spoke in an aggressive and sometimes intimidating tone of voice on a number of occasions when there was no apparent reason to do so,’’ the judges said.
At one stage there was “a long, unedifying and argumentative exchange’’ when the judge and Ms Dennis did not appear to be listening to each other.
Judge Vasta told Ms Dennis one of her submissions was “rubbish’’.
“Having regard to all the circumstances, and we stress, all the circumstances, we conclude that a case of apprehended bias has been established,’’ the judges said.
On Monday they set aside Judge Vasta’s orders and ordered the bank’s application for summary dismissal of Ms Dennis’ claim be reheard before a different Federal Circuit Court judge.
DECISIONS UNDER FIRE
August 2018: Judge Vasta’s decision in a property settlement case was set aside on appeal and costs paid to the Commonwealth, with a new hearing ordered by a judge “other than Judge Vasta”.
February 2019: A decision by Judge Vasta was partially overturned after he was found to have restrained a father from making further court applications without the power to do so.
February 2019: The Full Court of the Family Court found on appeal that Judge Vasta’s process was “so devoid of procedural fairness” it was “an affront to justice”. He had sentenced a father to 12 months’ prison for contempt, telling him “I hope you brought your toothbrush”.
February 2019: The Full Court of the Family Court overturned a decision by Judge Vasta in which he ordered a same-sex couple to have their child baptised.
February 2019: An appeal found that Judge Vasta denied natural justice to a father in a parenting case.
July 2019: Judge Vasta was found to have denied a man a fair trial when he jailed him for 12 months for contempt of court. He was found to have put unfair questions to the man.
August 2019: The Full Court of the Federal Court ruled Judge Vasta denied a man a fair hearing and was “frequently aggressive, rude and overbearing”. The court set aside Judge Vasta’s decision.
October 2019: The Full Court of the Family Court finds Judge Vasta denied a self-represented mother procedural fairness, unjustly sentencing her to suspended jail time.
December 2019: The Full Court of the Federal Court sets aside Judge Vasta’s decision, finding apprehended bias, orders new hearing before a different Federal Circuit Court judge.