Queensland man suing judge Salvatore Vasta claims he abused government power

·4 min read

A man suing judge Salvatore Vasta claims he abused government power, intimidated a lawyer in court, and acted in an “outrageous” manner while wrongly jailing him for 12 months, according to court documents.

Vasta, a sitting judge in the federal circuit court, is being personally sued by two people who claim they were wrongly jailed, both for contempt of court arising during routine civil cases.

The latest case has been launched by Leigh Jorgensen, a Queensland tourism operator who was before the court in an underpayment case.

Believing he had breached freezing orders, Vasta found Jorgensen guilty of contempt of court and sentenced him to 12 months in jail.

Related: Federal judge accused of ‘rudeness and arrogance’ in court after being mentored over earlier complaints

He spent two days in custody before the full bench of the federal court intervened, finding his trial for contempt had “substantially miscarried for at least four reasons”, including the “primary judge’s excessive, unwarranted and inappropriate interventions”.

The federal court described Vasta’s behaviour in the case as an “egregious departure from the role of a judge presiding over an adversarial trial” which meant his capacity to “objectively evaluate the evidence was fundamentally compromised”. It described his approach as “sarcastic, disparaging and dismissive of significant parts of Mr Jorgensen’s evidence” and said his questioning was “aggressive and, at times, unfair”.

Jorgensen, represented by Ken Cush & Associates, is now suing Vasta, alleging he is liable for false imprisonment. The case alleges Vasta should not be afforded the usual judicial immunity that protects judges from being sued, because he acted without jurisdiction or exceeded his jurisdiction.

Court documents allege Vasta’s conduct constituted an “abuse of government power”, a “disregard of Mr Jorgensen’s rights” and was “high-handed or outrageous”.

The case alleges Vasta “intimidated Mr Jorgensen’s lawyer”. The imprisonment is alleged to have caused mental harm and humiliation to Jorgensen.

He is also suing the commonwealth, saying it is liable for the actions of court security, which restrained his liberty without lawful authority.

“The commonwealth is vicariously liable to Mr Jorgensen for the false imprisonment committed by the court security officers,” the statement of claim alleges.

The case also alleges the Queensland government is liable for the actions of Queensland police and correctional officers who are alleged to have imprisoned Jorgensen without lawful authority.

No defence has yet been filed and Vasta declined to comment when approached by the Guardian.

In an earlier statement, the federal circuit court said Vasta had experienced “an extremely heavy workload over the past three years and since his appointment in 2015”.

“His honour has delivered 1,239 judgments. In addition, he had the added pressure of holding a senior administrative role within the court for the past 12 months,” the court said.

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In a separate case, Vasta is being sued for the imprisonment of a man given the pseudonym “Mr Stradford”, who was involved in a minor property dispute with his ex-wife.

According to Stradford’s claim, Vasta, believing the man had not divulged all of his financial information, repeatedly threatened to jail Stradford during the proceedings. He eventually did so, sentencing Stradford to 12 months’ imprisonment. An appeal court later said allowing the imprisonment order to stand would be an “affront to justice”.

Stradford says he endured a torrid time behind bars and has detailed a claim for damages of $2m.

In his defence to that case, Vasta conceded his decision to imprison Stradford was “affected by error”. The judge said he erroneously believed another judge had previously found Stradford had breached a court order, putting him in contempt. Nevertheless, Vasta said he should be protected by judicial immunity and denied he engaged in any abuse of power. That case remains before the federal court.

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