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Federal judge accused of ‘rudeness and arrogance’ in court after being mentored over earlier complaints

·6-min read

Controversial judge Salvatore Vasta has been the subject of a fresh complaint alleging he was “rude and arrogant” in what was described by the complainant as a “disgraceful” performance.

The complaint relates to a hearing where Vasta ordered a man to pay his ex-wife $100,000 for no apparent reason, just months after being mentored following other complaints about his behaviour in court.

Vasta, who sits on the federal circuit court, has been the subject of a string of complaints and withering criticism from appeal judges about his conduct in court in recent years, but has been allowed to continue presiding over cases.

The judge is also being personally sued – an extremely rare occurrence – in two separate cases, after he jailed two men during routine proceedings.

In one of those cases, his conduct was described as an “affront to justice”. In the other, he was criticised for “excessive, unwarranted, and inappropriate interventions in the course of cross examination” that amounted to a denial of the defendant’s procedural fairness, belittling the man’s defence, and being “openly hostile ... and at times disparaging and sarcastic”.

Related: Judge on trial: the federal court justice being sued for 'outrageous' decision to send man to jail

Following public reporting of those cases, the federal circuit court announced in July 2019 that Vasta was being mentored and had removed himself from an administrative role.

The Guardian has learned that, despite this, Vasta was the subject of yet another complaint roughly eight months later.

The complaint concerned his handling of a custody case in February 2020, during which he repeatedly interrupted and cut off a self-represented father, known by the pseudonym of Mr Yeates, who was in court for what he thought would be a first mention.

Appeal judgments show Vasta made “several exhortations … to the husband not to lie to him, seemingly because ‘if you lie to me once I can never trust you again’.”

Vasta then ordered him to pay his ex-wife $100,000 without reason or evidence to justify it, according to subsequent appeals.

When the husband tried to explain that he didn’t have $100,000, the judge responded: “Do not interrupt me. I am ordering it because you haven’t proven to me that you haven’t got it ... and you are going to have to prove it.”

An appeal judge later found there had been a complete absence of reasons given by Vasta for the order requiring payment by the husband of $100,000, and “a total absence of any evidence to justify why that sum was ordered to be paid”. The order was set aside on appeal.

The Guardian has also seen a complaint lodged with the court about Vasta’s conduct in the Yeates case, submitted to the federal circuit court’s chief judge in April 2020.

The complaint alleged Vasta had treated the husband like a “naughty primary school boy appearing before the school principal”. It alleged Vasta had belittled and bullied the man.

“It was a disgraceful performance,” the complaint read.

“Judge Vasta should not hear cases in the family court where cases are sensitive, require compassion and understanding and where decisions can affect people for a lifetime.”

The complaint was acknowledged by registrar Amanda Morris in a reply several weeks later.

But Morris said the “the chief judge has no power to intervene” and that “these matters cannot be dealt with under the complaints procedure”.

She did say, however, that the complaint had been brought to the attention of the chief judge.

“Your correspondence asserts Judge Vasta was ‘rude’ and ‘arrogant’,” she wrote. “While the adversarial nature of litigation and the demands of a high-volume workload can be stressful for all concerned, it is important that all parties and the judge exercise restraint, decorum and courtesy.”

“The federal circuit court is an extremely busy court, which takes its responsibility to provide access to justice to all litigants very seriously. From time to time all judicial officers are reminded of the concerns that can arise from judicial conduct, which may be seen as inappropriate or disrespectful.

“As you have noted in your correspondence, this includes mentoring of judges. I confirm your correspondence has been raised with the chief judge for these purposes.”

Morris said the complaint may be better dealt with through an appeal – a process that often costs tens of thousands of dollars.

The Law Council of Australia has lamented Australia’s lack of a standalone federal judicial commission, which would be able to independently consider complaints against sitting judges at arm’s length from the government and the courts.

Recent reports suggest the federal government is at least considering such a body.

The Guardian approached Vasta via the court, who said he did not wish to comment.

In an earlier statement, released when Vasta was mentored, the court said Vasta had experienced “an extremely heavy workload over the past three years and since his appointment in 2015”.

“His honour has delivered 1,239 judgments. In addition, he had the added pressure of holding a senior administrative role within the court for the past 12 months,” the court said.

“The judge has recently agreed to stand down from this administrative role and is receiving mentoring in appropriate areas to fully assist and support the judge to fulfil his duties.”

Judges are generally protected by the doctrine of judicial immunity, which shields them from civil liability for the decisions they make.

In one of the cases he is being sued over, Vasta has conceded he made errors but says he claimed judicial immunity.

That case, which took place in late 2018, involved a minor property dispute between a man known by the court-appointed pseudonym of “Mr Stradford” and his ex-wife.

Vasta, believing the man had not divulged all of his financial information, repeatedly threatened to jail Stradford during the proceedings.

He followed through on the threat, jailing Stradford for 12 months, to be suspended after six.

Stradford has detailed a harrowing account of his time behind bars, first in Brisbane’s Roma Street watchhouse, where he alleges he was dressed in women’s denim shorts by guards and once woke to find the hands of another inmate around his throat, and then later contemplating and planning to commit suicide in the Brisbane correctional centre in Wacol, where he stayed until the imprisonment order was overturned on appeal.

In his defence to the claim, Vasta denied he engaged in “any collateral abuse of process”.

He has also denied allegations that his conduct amounted to an “abuse of government power”, a disregard of Stradford’s rights, or “outrageous” or “high-handed” behaviour.

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