An Australian first: Judge Salvatore Vasta denied judicial immunity and successfully sued for the wrongful imprisonment of a Queensland man
A recent decision by the Federal Court of Australia has altered the legal landscape in its understanding of judicial immunity. The landmark ruling of Stradford (a pseudonym) v Judge Vasta  FCA 1020 (‘Stradford’), saw a judge being successfully sued for the first time in Australia. The lawyers acting for the claimant described the hearing before Judge Vasta as a parody, resembling ‘the court of the Queen of Hearts in the jurisdiction of Wonderland’.
Within the doctrine of judicial immunity, judges are afforded relief from civil liability for their decisions. However, the circumstances surrounding Stradford led to a finding in which Federal Circuit and Family Court Judge Salvatore Vasta being denied the protection of judicial immunity and found personally liable for the false imprisonment of the claimant. This article provides a background on the case and explains the significance of the ruling.
The transcript of the proceedings set out that the Queensland father of two only known by the pseudonym ‘Mr Stradford’ and his former wife appeared before Judge Vasta at the Federal Circuit Court in late 2018. It should have been a standard property settlement dispute. However, Judge Vasta believed that Mr Stradford was not disclosing his true financial position to his ex-wife and was ordered to disclose further financial documents. The court documents provide that it was during this exchange, Judge Vasta told the man to ‘bring your toothbrush’ if the requested financial information wasn’t provided. Mr Stradford, who was not represented by a lawyer nor had prior legal experience, had stated that he had done his best to provide all the necessary information. Despite this, he was found to be in contempt of court and ordered to be imprisoned for 12 months.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Stradford spent 5 days in a police watch house in Brisbane, where officers had dressed him in women’s denim shorts and placed him with four others in a holding cell. He had been attacked multiple times during his imprisonment and even awoke during the night to another inmate’s hands around his throat. As was reported in the media, he was not provided with toilet paper, and had to use his towel to clean himself. The same faeces-stained towel became his bedding when he was cold. Mr Stradford had contemplated and planned suicide, but upon hearing his daughter’s favourite song, abandoned the attempt. He was then transported to Brisbane Correctional Centre shortly prior to Christmas 2018, where he spent a further 2 days in the maximum-security area due to his self-harm risk. However, as reported by the media overcrowding meant he was placed with another inmate whom Mr Stradford said threatened to rape him. The ordeal was said to have ended when he was released on bail pending an appeal.
Initial judgement overturned
In February 2019, the Full Court of the Family Court of Australia set aside the orders made by Judge Vasta, concluding that ‘to permit the declaration and order for imprisonment to stand would be an affront to justice’. Further, they described Mr Stradford’s experiences as a ‘gross miscarriage of justice’. Mr Stradford then commenced proceedings against Judge Vasta, the Commonwealth and the State of Queensland in 2020.
Whilst noting the complexities surrounding the unique circumstances of the case, Federal Court Justice Michael Wigney eventually ruled in favour of the claimant. In a historical moment, his honour deemed Judge Vasta personally liable as he, ‘relevantly acted without, or in excess of, his jurisdiction’, and hence, is not protected by judicial immunity. The Commonwealth and the State of Queensland were also held liable. $309,500 in damages was awarded. Of this amount, Judge Vasta had to pay $50,000 in exemplary damages to, ‘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’.
Significance of the Stradford ruling
In the wake of the Stradford decision, the Law Council of Australia issued a statement highlighting that whilst judicial immunity is ‘intrinsically related to the principle of judicial independence’, there are ‘well-established limits’ to such immunity. In encouraging a ‘need for certainty and consistency’ when approaching ‘immunity and accountability of judicial officers’, they conveyed their support for establishing a Federal Judicial Commission to investigate complaints against judicial officers. Notably, most states and territories have such commissions to receive and manage complaints but at the Federal level, there is a lack of.
It is the Council’s position that ‘an independent, impartial, honest and competent judiciary is integral to upholding the rule of law, strengthening public confidence and dispensing justice’.
A particular point of interest stirred within this case was that of the effects on public confidence. At one end of the debate, the Stradford decision was said to have assured the public by justifying the high standard judicial officials are to be held. Justice Wigney’s judgement serves to be evidence of this, with the award of exemplary damages done to ‘vindicate “the strength of the rule of law”’, and to ‘deter any repletion of such a thoroughly unacceptable abuse of judicial power in the future’. However, whilst Judge Vasta’s alleged misconduct was judicially recognised, there is still an absence of an institutional response to mitigate such re-occurrences. Therefore, it could be argued that public confidence would only be properly assured with the establishment of a Federal Judicial Commission to regulate the accountability of judicial officers.
It is difficult to know the true extent of the implications of this decision. Although remarkably, within the discussion for a Commission, there also seems to be a degree of empathy as to the pressure resting on the shoulders of those exercising judicial power. In this sense, it is relevant to consider that aside from the ‘theatrics’ representative of authority, behind the bench sits a human being bearing an enormous responsibility.
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