A man has been awarded $309,450 in damages after suing a judge who jailed him for contempt three years ago.
Federal Circuit Court Judge Salvatore Vasta jailed the man, who can be referred to legally only as “Mr Stradford”, for 12 months during a routine family law property dispute with his ex-wife in 2018, after he failed to produce documents.
Mr Stradford alleged Judge Vasta had committed the torts of false imprisonment and collateral abuse of process, and that the Commonwealth and Queensland were vicariously liable for the actions of their officers in falsely imprisoning him.
He claimed damages for deprivation of liberty, personal injury and loss of earning capacity. The judge, the Commonwealth and Queensland all denied liability.
In his decision yesterday, Federal Court Justice Wigney said Mr Stradford was a victim of a “gross miscarriage of justice”, who was detained and imprisoned for contempt “following what could fairly be described as little more than a parody of a court hearing”.
Justice Wigney described how following Judge Vasta’s decision in December 2018, Mr Stradford spent five “miserable” days in a Brisbane watch-house, then two “difficult” days in the maximum-security Brisbane Correctional Centre at Wacol before he was released on bail pending an appeal. Mr Stradford’s time behind bars included assaults, rape threats and suicidal ideation. He now suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“There could be no real dispute that the judge made a number of fundamental and egregious errors in the purported exercise of his power to punish Mr Stradford for contempt,” Justice Wigney said.
“He sentenced Mr Stradford to imprisonment for contempt without first finding that Mr Stradford had in fact failed to comply with the orders in question.
“He erroneously believed that another judge had made that finding, though exactly how he could sensibly have arrived at that position in the circumstances somewhat beggars belief.
“He also failed to follow any of the procedures that he was required to follow when dealing with contempt allegations and otherwise failed to afford Mr Stradford any procedural fairness.
“He effectively pre-judged the outcome. Imprisonment was a fait accompli.”
In February 2019, the Full Court of the then-Family Court overturned Mr Stradford’s sentence on appeal.
“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,” it said.
Justice Wigney yesterday reiterated that court’s conclusion.
“At risk of repetition, the FamCA Full Court concluded that it was ‘difficult to envisage a more profound or disturbing example of pre-judgment and denial of procedural fairness to a party on any prospective orders, much less contempt, and much less contempt where a sentence of imprisonment was, apparently, pre-determined as the appropriate remedy’,” he said.
“I have effectively reached the same conclusion independently, but also respectfully agree with the FamCA Full Court’s reasoning and conclusion in that regard.”
Judge Vasta sought to rely on the doctrine of judicial immunity to defend his decision to jail Mr Stradford. Justice Wigney examined hundreds of years of cases to determine the scope of judicial immunity available for judges in inferior courts, eventually finding the immunity did not protect Judge Vasta because he “acted without, or in excess of, his jurisdiction”.
The Commonwealth and Queensland sought to rely on the common law defence that its police and prison officers were not liable for false imprisonment because they were acting pursuant to a court order. Justice Wigney found the defence was not available because the officers were not officers of the court, and the Commonwealth and Queensland were, therefore, vicariously liable.
He was not satisfied, however, that Judge Vasta’s actions constituted a collateral abuse of process.
The damages included a $59,450 award against Judge Vasta, the Commonwealth and Queensland for personal injury and loss of earning capacity; a $35,000 award against Judge Vasta and the Commonwealth for false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty; and a $165,000 against Judge Vasta and Queensland for false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty.
Justice Wigney also ordered Judge Vasta pay $50,000 in exemplary damages for false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty.
“I consider that an award of exemplary damages, albeit in the fairly modest sum of $50,000, is warranted and appropriate to both express the Court’s disapproval of the high-handed conduct of the Judge and his Honour’s reckless disregard of due process and the rights of Mr Stradford. Such an award should also deter the repetition of such conduct,” he said.