It has been three months since the celebrity courtroom battle starring Johnny Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard – containing serious and strenuously denied allegations of domestic violence – closed at the Royal Courts of Justice. Now judgment day in the libel case is about to arrive.
Ahead of the ruling on Monday, legal experts forecast that victory for Depp could deliver a bonanza of fresh libel claims to the London courts. If the judge finds for the Sun newspaper, which had Heard as its star witness, however, media reporting on public personalities may be emboldened.
Film careers may be broken: Heard’s roles in Hollywood are likely to be influenced by the verdict, while the future box office success of JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts film franchise – in which Depp stars – may be at stake. Reputations hang in the balance.
On Monday at 10am, without legal ceremony, the judge, Mr Justice Nicol, will hand down his ruling via the internet.
Though a libel case, Depp v News Group Newspapers Ltd & Another seemed more like a criminal trial or a bitterly contested hearing in the family courts. Its final act could have repercussions for how domestic violence is viewed and dealt with in the justice system.
At another level it was a bewildering and engrossing distraction from the tedium of pandemic lockdown, exposing the private, jet-set lives of Hollywood film stars and featuring blackout-inducing cocaine binges, allegations of excrement left in a bed and fortunes allegedly siphoned off by business managers.
Depp, 57, sued the Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers (NGN), and its executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an article published in the Sun that originally carried the headline “Gone Potty: How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”
Depp denied ever hitting Heard, 34. She submitted details of 14 occasions during their relationship when she claims he assaulted her. Both Depp and Heard gave evidence during the four-week trial.
News Group Newspapers is relying on the defence of truth to the claim. The burden of proof is on the Sun to demonstrate that the story was substantially accurate on the balance of probabilities.
Alex McCready, head of reputations and privacy at the London law firm Vardags, said: “It was the libel trial of the year. Perhaps the decade. Offering the public a rare glimpse into the life of two Hollywood superstars. The judgment which arrives on Monday has been even more hotly anticipated.
“Not only will it have an impact for the British media and the reporting of allegations of domestic abuse, it is also bound to have an indirect impact on the upcoming legal showdown between Ms Heard and Mr Depp and in the US.”
McCready suggested that if Depp wins it might reinforce the perception that England is a “claimant-friendly jurisdiction in which to bring a defamation claim”. That could encourage more libel trials. “If the Sun wins,” she added, “it will likely embolden the English press reporting on such matters.”
Harriet Wistrich, the founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said the celebrity battle coincided with an increase in UK domestic abuse cases involving libel threats after ex-partners speak out or give friends their account of what happened inside a relationship. “We have lots of concerns about what is going on in the family courts,” she said.
“The Johnny Depp trial has been played out like a soap opera with every next episode eagerly awaited. Domestic violence is an extremely serious issue that can cause death, trauma and long-term harm that blights the lives of many – for those who are victims this was not entertainment. I would also question whether the libel courts can ever be appropriate for trying this issue which requires specialist insight and understanding.”
There have been complaints that while the wealthy can afford privileged access to the high court, the under-resourced family courts in England and Wales struggle to cope with a backlog of claims of domestic abuse.
Steven Heffer, head of media and privacy at the law firm Collyer Bristow, said: “When allegations are made that have not been tested in the criminal courts, it is the libel court that can attempt to provide answers. It has always been a court of high drama where high-profile parties clash. The stakes – and the costs – are high and reputations are won or lost depending on the outcome.
“The sort of conduct alleged is essentially criminal and also highly defamatory, that is to say it tends to lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking people and cause them to be subject to “hatred, ridicule and contempt”. This is even more so in the post-#MeToo era. Depp denies the allegations and wants to clear his reputation.”
A sequel is already scheduled. Depp’s $50m (£39m) defamation claim against Heard – replaying similar arguments – is due to go before another judge in Virginia next May. Monday’s judgment in London could prove decisive for that legal rematch.