A man whose identity has been suppressed was jailed during a property dispute with his ex-wife has successfully sued Federal Court judge who made what the court called “serious and fundamental errors” before falsely sending him to jail.
The federal court ruled on Wednesday that inferior court judge Salvatore Vasta made a series of errors beyond his jurisdiction, and engaged a “gross and obvious irregularity of procedure” when he jailed the man, known only as “Mr Stradford” in late 2018. Stradford was awarded $309,450 in damages.
The original case before the federal court was to help divide his and his ex-wife’s assets and decide a minor property settlement dispute.
Vasta threatened to jail Stradford repeatedly during the trial because he believed he had not provided full disclosure of all his financial details. As a self-represented litigant, he was threatened he would be jailed if he kept exercising his right to be heard by speaking over the judge and was warned to comply with Vasta’s disclosure orders or to “bring your toothbrush”.
Vasta later jailed him for 12 months for contempt of court, to be suspended after six months.
Stradford detailed a terrorising account of the week he spent in jail – including an assault, the threat of being raped, suicidal ideation before a higher court overturned the original decision, which has been described as an “affront to justice”.
Michael Wigney, a Federal court justice described the case as "complex on multiple levels" and said he had to read case law stretching back centuries in making his decision. After years of deliberation the matter, Justice Wigney ruled in Stradford’s favour. He found Vasta falsely imprisoned the man and left him without a “modicum” of procedural fairness.
In his decision Justice Wigney said, “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,” “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.” As Vasta acted beyond his jurisdiction he was also not entitled to judicial immunity.
“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,” “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.”
Stradford has been awarded $309,450 in damages, much less than what Stradford had requested. Wigney said Stradford’s lost future earnings as a result of the imprisonment was nowhere near what he had claimed.