Man jailed during routine property dispute wins $300,000 after suing judge over ‘fundamental errors’
A man jailed during a routine property dispute with his former wife has successfully sued a sitting judge who made what the federal court called “serious and fundamental errors” before falsely imprisoning him.
The federal court found on Wednesday that inferior court judge Salvatore Vasta made a series of basic errors, exceeded his jurisdiction, and engaged in a “gross and obvious irregularity of procedure” when he locked up the man, known only as “Mr Stradford” in late 2018, and awarded Stradford $309,450 in damages.
Stradford was appearing before the federal circuit court to help divide his and his ex-wife’s assets and determine a minor property settlement dispute.
Vasta repeatedly threatened to jail Stradford during the proceedings because he believed he had not divulged all of his financial information. Stradford, who was self-represented, was at one point told he would be jailed if he kept speaking over the judge and was warned to comply with Vasta’s disclosure orders or “bring your toothbrush”.
Vasta later jailed him for 12 months for contempt of court, to be suspended after six months.
Stradford detailed a harrowing account of the seven days he spent behind bars – including a rape threat, suicidal ideation, and an assault – before a higher court intervened to overturn Vasta’s decision, which it later described as an “affront to justice”.
Stradford, represented by Ken Cush and Associates, took the unusual step of suing Vasta personally, alleging the judge’s conduct amounted to false imprisonment.
He also alleged that the state of Queensland and the commonwealth were vicariously liable for the actions of police and prison officers in carrying out Vasta’s order.
Civil action against sitting judges is rare because they are typically protected by judicial immunity for decisions made on the bench.
Federal court justice Michael Wigney described the case as complex on multiple levels and said it had required him to read case law stretching back centuries.
After years of deliberation, Wigney ruled in Stradford’s favour. He found Vasta falsely imprisoned the man and left him without a “modicum” of procedural fairness.
“The order which resulted in the applicant’s imprisonment was infected by a number of serious and fundamental errors on the part of the judge,” Wigney said in a summary of his judgment delivered at the time of publishing his full reasons. “The individual and cumulative effect of those errors was that the order was invalid and of no legal effect from the outset. The order and related warrant therefore provided no lawful justification for the applicant’s imprisonment.”
Wigney also found Vasta was not entitled to judicial immunity because he had acted outside his jurisdiction.
“That was because in summary he imprisoned the applicant without first finding that the applicant had failed to comply with the disclosure orders in question, and was therefore in contempt and without finding any of the facts he was required to find before imprisoning the applicant for any such contempt,” Wigney said in his summary of his decision.
“The judge was also guilty of a gross and obvious irregularity of procedure and denied the applicant any modicum of procedural fairness or justice. The denial of procedural fairness was anything but narrow and technical. It was fundamental.”
Wigney said that Queensland and the commonwealth were also vicariously liable. The two governments had sought to argue their officers – police and prison officers – were duty-bound to carry out the orders of the court and were justified in carrying out Vasta’s order of imprisonment.
Wigney found such a defence was not available to them because they were not officers of the court.
Queensland prison and police officers were also not protected for carrying out the orders of a commonwealth court, Wigney ruled, regardless of whether the building existed physically in that state.
Wigney awarded Stradford $309,450 in damages, which was far less than what Stradford had asked for. Wigney said Stradford’s lost future earnings as a result of the imprisonment was nowhere near what he had claimed.
Prior to jailing Stradford in December 2018, Vasta told the man he was about to learn a lesson.
“That’s the strange thing, is you really don’t think that the court will ever jail you for contempt,” he said. “You’re about to find that lesson is going to be a very hard one for you to learn.”