Wrongly jailed father successfully sues judge for false imprisonment in landmark case

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A father who was wrongly jailed by a judge for an alleged contempt of court in a family law case has been awarded more than $300,000 in damages after he took the rare step of suing the judge personally.

In a landmark decision on Wednesday, Federal Court Justice Michael Wigney held Federal Circuit and Family Court Judge Salvatore Vasta could not rely on a judicial immunity and was personally liable for the man’s false imprisonment. The Commonwealth and the state of Queensland were also held liable.

Judge Salvatore Vasta.

The father of two, given the pseudonym Mr Stradford, was awarded a total of $309,450 in damages.

Vasta alone was ordered to pay $50,000 of the total sum in exemplary damages for false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty. Exemplary damages, which are punitive rather than compensatory, are awarded in rare cases.

Each of Vasta, the Commonwealth and the state of Queensland were ordered to pay a combined $59,450 of the total to cover Stradford’s personal injury and loss of earning capacity.

Vasta and the Commonwealth were also ordered to pay $35,000 for false imprisonment and deprivation of liberty, while Vasta and the state of Queensland were ordered to pay $165,000 for false imprisonment.

Stradford launched proceedings against Vasta, the Commonwealth and the state of Queensland in the Federal Court in 2020 after the Full Court of the Family Court overturned Vasta’s 2018 order imprisoning him in that state.

The Full Court said in a scathing judgment in 2019 that it would be “an affront to justice” to leave in place the declaration that Stradford had committed a contempt of court and the order imprisoning him for a maximum of 12 months.

“What occurred here … constituted a gross miscarriage of justice,” the Full Court said at the time. It said Vasta had no power to make the declaration or order and no factual basis for doing so.

Vasta has been the subject of a series of excoriating appeal judgments, and is facing a second lawsuit brought by another man he jailed for an alleged contempt of court. That case was paused pending the outcome of the Stradford case.

The Federal Court heard Vasta told Stradford, whose former wife strenuously opposed him going to jail, to “bring your toothbrush” after he allegedly failed to hand over all his financial records in the family law case.

Neither Stradford nor his former wife had lawyers acting for them in the property dispute and the man insisted he had “in good faith tried to provide every aspect of my financial life”.

“Don’t tell me ‘I tried’,” Vasta told the man. “Rubbish … I didn’t come down in the last shower.

“And that’s the strange thing, is you really don’t think that the court ever will 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 held for seven days in police custody and prison, during which he said he was bashed in prison, became suicidal and woke up to his cellmate strangling him. He was eventually released from custody after obtaining a stay to prevent the order jailing him taking effect pending his court challenge.

Under the doctrine of judicial immunity, judges cannot ordinarily be sued for decisions they make, and Vasta sought to rely on this immunity in the Stradford case.

Wigney found this immunity did not protect Vasta. He said Vasta had engaged in a “gross and obvious irregularity of procedure” and denied Stradford “any modicum” of natural justice or procedural fairness.

Vasta was a Federal Circuit Court judge at the time he imprisoned Stradford and is now a judge of the Federal Circuit and Family Court, after the two courts were merged.

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