Judge’s jailing of man for contempt during routine property dispute described to court as ‘grossest parody’
The court has heard the actions of a sitting judge who jailed a man during a routine property dispute were the “grossest parody of a court hearing” and could be likened to the justice doled out by the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland.
Federal circuit court judge Salvatore Vasta is being sued for his handling of a routine property settlement case in 2018, during which he jailed a man for contempt.
Sitting judges are generally protected by the doctrine of judicial immunity, making such cases extremely rare.
The jailed man, known by the pseudonym of “Mr Stradford”, appeared before Vasta in 2018 to settle a property dispute with his estranged partner.
Believing Stradford was not disclosing all his financial information, Vasta repeatedly warned that he would jail him. At various points, he warned him to “bring your toothbrush” and said he would “put you in jail in contempt of this court if you talk over the top of me”.
In December 2018, wrongly believing that another judge had found Stradford guilty of contempt, Vasta sentenced him to 12 months jail, to serve six.
An appeals court later found he gave him no chance to respond to the allegation of contempt, or put any evidence or submissions prior to his jailing. At one point, Stradford’s former partner said she didn’t want him to go to jail.
Vasta responded: “I don’t care.”
In his opening submissions to a hearing starting on Monday, Stradford’s barrister, Perry Herzfeld, SC, said the case represented a “gross and complete denial of procedural fairness” and was the “grossest parody of a court hearing”.
“Sentence first, verdict afterwards,” he said, in a reference to the system of justice used by the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. “And that’s what happened here. Except there was actually never a verdict.”
He said judicial immunity did not apply to Vasta, because, as an inferior court judge, he exceeded his jurisdiction.
The imprisonment order made by Vasta included a “gross and obvious irregularity”, he said, because there was never a hearing or verdict on whether Stradford was guilty of contempt, and a lack of even a “shred” of procedural fairness.
The court heard Stradford endured a torrid time in detention, both in a watch house and a correctional centre. Psychiatric experts said it caused him post-traumatic stress disorder and a depressive condition, which has significantly affected his ability to work.
He is suing Vasta for aggravated damages.
“In our submission, the substantial award of aggravated damages is a suitable response by this court to a gross abuse of the judicial power of the commonwealth,” Herzfeld said.
The commonwealth and the state of Queensland are also being sued for their part in the imprisonment.
Vasta’s barrister, Jeremy Kirk, SC, conceded the judge had made an error by assuming another judge had found Stradford in contempt.
“He’s a human being. He made a mistake,” Kirk said.
He said that when the error was drawn to Vasta’s attention, he recognised the mistake and issued a stay.
Stradford was then released. The order was overturned on appeal.
“That is why we have appeals, because judicial officers err,” Kirk said. “In fact, in law, in discretion or in some manifestation of all three.”
He said Stradford’s allegations effectively asserted that if any inferior court judge – including magistrates – made an error while jailing someone, they should be liable to a civil claim.
“That is a startling conclusion, in our respectful submission,” Kirk said.
Kirk also took issue with Herzfeld’s use of language, including that it represented a gross abuse of power and a parody of a court hearing.
“Epithets such as those employed by my learned friend … do not advance legal analysis, and rather distract from it.”
Acting for the commonwealth, Tom Howe QC said the language used could pose “grave reputational harm” to Vasta, in circumstances where the court may find that the case against him should not have been brought.
The hearing continues in the federal court before Justice Michael Wigney.