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Brisbane judge sued over wrongful jailing 'acted like Queen of Hearts', court told

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A character from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been invoked as federal judge Salvatore Vasta defends a lawsuit from a father-of-two he wrongly jailed.

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The Brisbane father, known by court pseudonym Mr Stradford, claims the six nights he spent in custody in December 2018 left him with psychiatric injuries causing a multi-million dollar loss in past and future income.

He was jailed after tussling several times with Federal Circuit Court Judge Salvatore Vasta over his production of betting account documents to the court during divorce proceedings.

The divorce case had most recently been before another judge, leading Judge Vasta to act on a mistaken belief Mr Stradford had already been found in contempt of court.

Opening Mr Stradford’s Federal Court case on Monday, Perry Herzfeld SC pointed to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the foul-tempered Queen of Hearts.

“Your Honour may recall her catchphrase was ‘sentence first – verdict afterwards’,” the barrister said.

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

Mr Herzfeld said the decision to sentence on December 6 was a “gross and obvious irregularity” rather than an error on a narrow, technical ground.

There was no formal charge of contempt, no finding of contempt, no opportunity for Mr Stradford to make submissions and no opportunity for him to lead evidence.

Based on transcripts and other material available to Judge Vasta, it was “bewildering” how he could have possibly come to believe the other judge made a finding.

Further, Herzfeld alleged Vasta had used the threat of a contempt finding to cause the Stradfords, who were both self-represented, to settle proceedings.

“The process to which Mr (Stradford) was subjected was the grossest parody of the court hearing,” Mr Herzfeld said.

Lawyers for the jailed man brought the error to Judge Vasta’s attention on December 12, leading to an immediate stay of the one-year sentence.

An appeal court later overturned the finding and sentence, describing the episode as “a gross miscarriage of justice”.

Vasta’s lawyer said appeal courts existed to correct judicial errors.

“He is a human being, he made a mistake,” Jeremy Kirk SC said in opening.

“It was a mistake with significant consequences but it was a human mistake.”

While forecasting that Judge Vasta would take a backseat in the case, owing to the “awkwardness (of) appearing on the litigious battlefield”, Mr Kirk attacked the use of “grossest parody” remark and other condemnatory rhetoric employed by Mr Herzfeld.

Beyond remarks supporting a claim that Vasta abused his government power and operated “high-handed or outrageous” conduct, “epithets … tempting as they are, do not affect the legal analysis, and rather distract from it,” Kirk said.

A finding that Vasta’s mistake breached his judicial immunity could have the consequence of opening magistrates nationwide to civil suits every time they erred in their daily task of sentencing.

“That is a startling conclusion,” Mr Kirk said.

Mr Stradford has also made false imprisonment claims against the federal and Queensland governments.

Each government is defending the claim by saying its officers were duty-bound to obey a judicial warrant.

The hearing, before Judge Michael Wigney, is expected to run until next week.

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