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Individual Awarded $300K Settlement After Filing Lawsuit Against Incarcerating Judge

A man jailed for seven days in a gross miscarriage of justice will get more than $300,000 (US$191,000) in damages after suing the judge who imprisoned him.

In the first case of its kind in almost 60 years, Judge Salvatore Vasta will be liable to personally pay part of the compensation offered to the Brisbane man, known only by the pseudonym Mr Stradford.

The father-of-two was jailed in December 2018 for a minimum of six months for not obeying orders to provide financial documents during divorce proceedings.

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The sentence was overturned, and the man was released after six nights after the decision to jail him was strongly criticised by an appeals court.

On Wednesday, a Federal Court judge also blasted Judge Vasta’s serious errors in imprisoning Mr. Stradford as he ordered almost $310,000 in damages.

“The applicant in this proceeding was the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice,” Justice Michael Wigney said in his ruling.

“He was detained and imprisoned for contempt following what could fairly be described as little more than a parody of a court hearing.”

The man was escorted from the courtroom, frisked and kept in a small holding cell before being taken to a Brisbane police watch house and strip-searched.

There, Mr. Stradford was intimidated by other inmates and took steps to end his own life, only stopping because he heard his daughter’s favourite song on the radio.

While in jail, he was grabbed on the buttocks by an inmate who said he would look sexier if he shaved his legs.

Justice Wigney found that Judge Vasta, a Federal Circuit Court judge, made “a number of fundamental and egregious errors” in jailing Mr. Stradford for contempt without first finding that he had failed to comply with the court’s orders.

“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,” Justice Wigney said.

During hearings in 2021, Judge Vasta was compared to Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts for his courtroom behaviour.

“Your Honour may recall her catchphrase was ‘sentence first—verdict afterwards’,” Mr. Stradford’s barrister Perry Herzfeld SC said at the time.

“That’s what happened here—but there was never a verdict.”

Justice Wigney examined legal cases stretching back over 400 years in reaching his decision, finding that Judge Vasta could not rely on judicial immunity to protect himself from paying damages because he had acted outside his jurisdiction.

“There was no proper foundation in law for the making of the imprisonment order,” he said.

The court had been told that a 1965 case involving Tasmania’s Supreme Court was the last known case where an Australian judicial officer was held liable for damages.

The Commonwealth and Queensland were found to be vicariously liable for Mr. Stradford’s imprisonment, with the judge ordering they pay part of the compensation for an ordeal that left the Brisbane man with PTSD and major depressive disorder.

Because the court order and warrant for the jailing of the Brisbane man were invalid, they gave no lawful justification for Queensland police or prison officers to put him behind bars.

The man was awarded aggravated damages as neither the Commonwealth nor the Queensland government apologised for the wrongful imprisonment.

“The failure to offer any apology to Mr. Stradford in all the circumstances was unjustifiable,” Justice Wigney said.

He was given almost $60,000 for personal injury and loss of earning capacity, $200,000 in aggravated damages for the false imprisonment and $50,000 in exemplary damages.

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