The actions of a Federal Court judge have been labelled as “gross and unreasonable” after he sent a man to a maximum-security prison for six days after family law negotiations.
In a rare case, Judge Salvatore Paul Vasta is being personally sued by a Gold Coast man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, after the man claims he was “falsely imprisoned”.
The father-of-two, who is being referred to by the pseudonym Mr Stradford, has made claims he was imprisoned without lawful justification, was beaten and strangled in prison, became suicidal and is now suffering multi-million-dollar losses in past and future incomes.
A two-week long compensation hearing began on Monday at the Federal Court in Canberra, where Mr Stradford’s barrister, Perry Herzfeld SC, told the court that Judge Vasta’s behaviour was the “grossest parody of a court hearing”.
He also likened the judge to Lewis Carroll’s foul-tempered Queen of Hearts by saying the court that Judge Vasta operated in was in the “jurisdiction of Wonderland”.
“Her catchphrase was always sentence first, verdict afterwards,” Mr Herzfeld said.
“That’s what happened here, but there was never a verdict.”
In 2018, Mr Stradford and his then-wife first appeared in the Federal Circuit Court seeking property adjustment orders for their marital assets.
During the proceedings, Judge Vasta ordered an unrepresented Mr Stradford to provide financial statements to the court, who said he tried his best to produce them but could not provide them all.
The matter came before the judge for a hearing on August 10, 2018 where the court heard Judge Vasta told the man’s wife he could “do something about it” if he failed to provide the material.
“If people don’t comply with my orders, there’s only one place they go – I don’t have any hesitation jailing people if they don’t comply with my orders,” Judge Vasta said at the time, the court heard.
Throughout the hearing, Judge Vasta told the man “not to talk over the top” of him and said he “did not care” the man’s former wife did not want him to go to prison.
“If she (Ms Stradford) comes here and complains she’s asked of things and you have not given them to her, bring your toothbrush,” Judge Vasta said.
Mr Stradford was not given an opportunity to make submissions and there was no formal finding or charge of contempt, but he was given a 12-month prison sentence after Judge Vasta described the man’s protestations as “rubbish”.
The sentence was quickly overturned by the full bench of the Family Court on appeal, who described the decision as a “gross miscarriage” of justice.
Mr Herzfeld on Monday told the Federal Court his client endured “the grossest parody of a court hearing”.
He said Judge Vasta made a mistake by jailing the Queensland man before finding him guilty or allowing him any time to defend himself.
Mr Herzfeld also alleged Judge Vasta used the threat of contempt of court in an attempt to settle the proceedings between the couple.
The Gold Coast father of two spent six nights behind bars, first at the Brisbane watch-house, then some time at the maximum-security Brisbane Correctional Centre.
Judge Vasta’s barrister, Jeremy Kirk SC, told the court he was only “a human being” who made a mistake, thinking another judge found Mr Stradford guilty of contempt.
“He made a mistake, there were significant consequences … nevertheless it was a mistake,” Mr Kirk said.
Mr Kirk said appeal courts exist to correct judicial errors such as Judge Vasta’s.
An emotional Mr Stradford took the stand on Monday afternoon, where he explained how he felt “intimidated” and “shocked” by how Judge Vasta was talking to him.
He said he was “fearful” of the judge because it was clear he was “very upset” when he walked into the courtroom.
“My wife could have said the sky was green and he would have gotten upset at me over it,” Mr Stradford said.
“I’m not sure how to explain it, but it was very overwhelming.”
During a lunch adjournment in court, Mr Stradford said he called his best mate and told him to come get his car because he thought he was going to jail.
Mr Stradford told the court through tears how he was escorted out of the courtroom by two security guards and taken to a cell below the premises.
“I was in shock … in fear thinking about how much I must have let everybody down,” he said.
“What was going to happen with my kids, my fiance, that sort of stuff.”
Mr Stradford is suing for about $2 million in damages for deprivation of liberty and serious psychiatric injuries, where the court heard he is unable to work full-time.
He has also made false imprisonment claims against both the Queensland government and the Commonwealth, claiming both are liable for his ordeal, as court and prison staff acted on the judge’s orders.
Both governments are defending the claims, saying officers were duty-bound to obey a judicial warrant.
The hearing continues before Judge Michael Wigney.
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