Man is suing Judge Salvatore Vasta after he was jailed without being found guilty of contempt, a court has heard
A man imprisoned during a case in what an appeals court labelled an “affront to justice” says his ordeal has left him suicidal, angry and struggling to work.
In rare proceedings, federal circuit court judge Salvatore Vasta is being personally sued for his actions during a routine property settlement matter that appeared before him in 2018.
Vasta repeatedly threatened to jail the man, believing he was not disclosing some of his financials, and at one point told him to “bring your toothbrush”.
“I have told you, I will put you in jail in contempt of this court if you talk over the top of me. Do you understand?” Vasta said.
In December 2018, Vasta erroneously believed another judge had found the man, known as Mr Stradford, guilty of contempt during a previous mention of the case. Vasta sentenced him to 12 months’ imprisonment, to serve six.
The federal court has heard Stradford was given no hearing, no chance to put evidence or submissions, and was never actually found guilty of contempt. His barrister, Perry Herzfeld SC, has described the case as the “grossest parody of a court hearing”.
Stradford claims the sentence triggered a harrowing ordeal, and that he was assaulted behind bars, attempted to die by suicide, and intimidated and taunted by other inmates and guards. He was released after about a week, once the error was realised. An appeal court later found that the imprisonment order was “an affront to justice”.
In evidence on Tuesday, Stradford said the experience had irrevocably changed him. He struggled to sleep, became suicidal, and began to have nightmares about being handcuffed, and of multiple faces attacking him, a nightmare evoking his initial experience of prison.
“That’s why when we recount all of these events, in my mind I don’t see them as memories any more,” he said. “I see it as a nightmare that happened a few years ago, and to try to pull back in those nightmares, that’s why I’m not so clear on some things.
“I’ve deliberately tried to put it to the side of my mind, just to try to keep putting it away, every time it comes.”
He can’t shower without being reminded of prison showers. His work has suffered significantly, he said, unable to concentrate or deliver on promises, and quickly reacting in anger if challenged.
“The person I was before, I’m not now,” he said, fighting back tears.
“In terms of physical reaction … I get angry, I get upset, I find myself sitting there talking to myself, in a rage. It’s just hard because I’ve got my fiancee and she’s supported me and I’ve done nothing but let her down.”
The case is a rare test of the concept of judicial immunity, which generally protects judges from being sued for errors in their decisions.
Vasta has acknowledged that he made a mistake. But his barrister Jeremy Kirk, SC, said the error had been detected and rectified through the appeals process, as it should have been.
He said the case brought against Vasta would mean that if any inferior court judge – including magistrates – made an error while jailing someone, they would be liable to a civil claim.
“That is a startling conclusion, in our respectful submission,” Kirk said on Tuesday.
The hearing continues in the federal court before Justice Michael Wigney.
• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636