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

Christopher Knaus
·8-min read

Trapped in a prison van, terrified and confused, Mr Stradford* began to hyperventilate.

The claustrophobia and anxiety was overwhelming him, according to court documents.

He says he started banging on the van’s door, begging to be let out.

The only response to his distress was from the two detainees being transported with him, he says.

One allegedly put his handcuffs around Stradford’s neck and tried to strangle him from behind.

“Shut the dog up,” the man uttered.

It had been about four days since Stradford stood in the federal circuit court before judge Salvatore Vasta, where, self-represented and without any legal experience, he was arguing a routine property settlement dispute with his ex-wife.

Somehow, in circumstances later described as an “affront to justice”, Stradford left the court building in handcuffs, sentenced to 12 months in jail.

Vasta’s conduct in the case, and in others, prompted public controversy last year, and led him to be mentored and removed from an administrative role. It also reignited calls for a federal judicial commission, to receive and independently consider allegations against sitting judges.

Now, in a rare step, Stradford is suing the judge personally, alleging Vasta should not be afforded the usual judicial immunity that protects those on the bench.

The court documents filed on his behalf by his lawyers, Ken Cush and Associates, allege a disturbing series of events.

The case alleges Stradford never would have endured the ordeal but for Vasta’s abuse of process and unlawful imprisonment order.

‘Bring your toothbrush’

To fully comprehend the case, it’s crucial to understand why Stradford was in court that day.

The federal circuit court handles lower-level family law matters. Stradford and his ex-wife were arguing over a property settlement and the division of their assets.

The matter appeared before Vasta in August 2018. The transcripts make it clear the judge was not happy with Stradford.

“I have told you, I will put you in jail in contempt of this court if you talk over the top of me,” Vasta said at one point. “Do you understand?”

He believed Stradford was failing to comply with orders to divulge all his financial information and warned him to disclose the information or “bring your toothbrush”.

Stradford said he did his best to comply.

“I have provided every document that I am physically able to provide,” he later told another judge.

Two weeks later, on 6 December 2018, the case returned before Vasta.

He was, again, not impressed by Stradford’s efforts, court documents show.

“You do realise that you will be serving 12 months in jail. So I’m happy to do that,” he said.

Stradford was given an opportunity: resolve the matter with his ex-wife or the judge would “proceed with the contempt hearing”.

The court broke for five minutes and, when it returned, Stradford’s ex-wife told the judge she did not want him to go to jail.

They had their children to think about, she told the court, who were then aged nine and five.

“Sorry, I said I don’t want him to go …,” she said.

According to court documents, the judge replied: “I don’t care.”

Stradford again attempted to explain that he had provided all the documents he could.

Vasta was not convinced.

“You haven’t done anything of the sort,” he said, according to court documents. “You would have done anything you could to avoid it. And that’s the strange thing, is you really don’t think that the court will ever jail you for contempt.

“You’re about to find that lesson is going to be a very hard one for you to learn.”

Stradford was then sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment, which would be suspended after serving six.

He was first taken to Brisbane’s Roma Street watchhouse, where he alleges he was stripped naked and frisked.

Unable to find clothes that fit, officers allegedly dressed him in women’s denim shorts, and left him with four others in a holding cell, according to court documents.

The Brisbane Correctional Centre's maximum security unit at Wacol
Stradford was sent to the Brisbane Correctional Centre’s maximum security unit in Wacol, which houses killers and child sex offenders. Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

“You’re fresh meat, we love your shorts, how did you get them?” one of his new cellmates allegedly said.

He says he woke that night to find the hands of another inmate around his throat.

“Get him out of here now,” his attacker allegedly said.

At one point, Stradford hid beneath his blanket to cry. He was allegedly punched and humiliated, warned he would be in the watchhouse for months, and told the facility housed “rapists and murderers”.

He alleges he was given no toilet paper and had to use his towel to clean himself after using the toilet, before using the same towel for extra bedding due to the cold.

The first lawyer he called for help demanded $15,000 before he could provide assistance, he says.

When Stradford called Legal Aid, he says the service said it couldn’t help until he was in the Brisbane Correctional Centre, court documents show.

He contemplated and planned suicide, but stopped only when he heard his daughter’s favourite song on the radio, the court documents say.

After four days at the watchhouse, he was transported to the Brisbane Correctional Centre in Wacol, which houses killers and child sex offenders.

The escorting officer asked him if it was his first time in prison. When Stradford said it was, he says, the officer replied: “You’re going to love Christmas in here.”

He reported depression to prison authorities and was marked as an at-risk prisoner, which caused him to be sent to the maximum security section of the jail, court documents say.

The overcrowding at the jail left him housed with another inmate, who threatened to sexually assault him, he alleges.

At one point, the cellmate allegedly told Stradford that he would “look a lot sexier with shaved legs”.

Stradford says he shaved his legs to avoid being assaulted.

The ordeal ended only when he received a call, telling him a stay had been ordered on his imprisonment, pending an appeal.

The eventual appeal unanimously found in Stradford’s favour. The full bench of the family court found: “We are driven to conclude that the processes employed by the primary judge were so devoid of procedural fairness to the husband, and the reasons for judgment so lacking in engagement with the issues of fact and law to be applied, that to permit the declaration and order for imprisonment to stand would be an affront to justice.”

‘A means of exerting pressure’

Stradford’s civil case against the judge is rare.

Common law generally confers on judges immunity from civil liability.

But the case alleges that Vasta lost that protection because he exceeded his jurisdiction.

“In making the imprisonment order, Judge Vasta made an order that he lacked power to make in the particular circumstances of this case, in that he sentenced [Stradford] to imprisonment without first finding that there had in fact been a breach of any orders,” Stradford’s statement of claim says.

The case alleges that Stradford was denied any chance to plead his case, was not allowed procedural fairness, and that Vasta had prejudged the issue of whether he was in contempt and deserved imprisonment. It also alleges that Vasta “used the threat of imprisonment as a means of exerting pressure on [Stradford] to settle the case outside the courtroom”.

It alleges an “abuse of government power”, a contumelious disregard for Stradford’s rights, and conduct that was “high-handed or outrageous”.

The Guardian approached the federal circuit court and Vasta for a response. Both declined to comment.

The court has previously said that the judge has “had an extremely heavy workload over the past three years” and has delivered more than 1,300 judgments since his appointment in 2015.

“He also had the added pressure of holding a senior administrative role within the Court. The judge is no longer undertaking that administrative role and he is receiving mentoring from a retired judge to assist and support him to fulfil his duties,” the court said in a statement to the ABC.

The Law Council of Australia, which has previously argued for a judicial complaints commission, also declined to comment.

Vasta is yet to file a defence in the case.

The state of Queensland, which is also being sued for vicarious liability, has filed a defence, which, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, says it has made inquiries and cannot be certain about the truth of some of the allegations made by Stradford about his treatment in custody.

As for Stradford, the psychiatric reports commissioned by his lawyers say his trauma is ongoing.

The reports suggest he has developed post-traumatic stress disorder and secondary major depressive disorder.

One psychiatric assessment described Stradford as a “broken man”.

• Mr Stradford is a court-appointed pseudonym. The man’s identity cannot be disclosed for legal reasons.

• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Support is also available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, and MensLine on 1300 789 978