Behind closed doors: the benefits of resolving celebrity disputes in private

8th October 2020 Media Law

Many individuals who embark on careers in high-profile industries, such as sport or entertainment, face something of a conundrum: how to reconcile their position in their public eye with a private life.

For some, even glittering and well-remunerated professions are simply jobs which should not prevent them being able, for instance, to spend time with their families without intrusion.

In an age when the popularity of smartphones means that a celebrity's indiscretion is merely a couple of clicks away from featuring on the pages of a tabloid, that balance is arguably harder than ever to strike.

However, it's not just media and watchful members of the public who contribute to all the scrutiny of celebrities, as recent news coverage shows.

In the last few weeks, we've seen reports that singer-songwriter Sir Elton John is going to have private talks with his former wife Renate Blauel in an attempt to reach agreement in relation to her claim that his autobiography and last year's biopic had breached the terms of the 1988 divorce which brought their four-year marriage to a close.

That news had followed detailed allegations about the problems during their relationship and the impact which both the book and movie had on Ms Blauel's health.

It is not the only case of its kind to have taken up column inches in the UK's print titles.

A bitter social media spat between Coleen Rooney, wife of the former England footballer Wayne, and Rebekah Vardy, the spouse of his ex-international team-mate, Jamie, is scheduled to be aired in court next month after a run of headlines which saw Rooney earn the nickname 'WAG-atha Christie'.

The most spectacular of all, though, was probably the case involving 'Pirates of the Caribbean' star Johnny Depp and his wife, the model and actress, Amber Heard, which occupied the High Court for three weeks in August.

Even though Mr Depp was suing The Sun newspaper for libel, the proceedings were dominated by a series of lurid allegations about the couple's private lives.

These three cases may have delighted newsdesks but are just the sort of proceedings likely to cause discomfort, even to those used to critical treatment by media.

It's interesting that the case involving the former Mr and Mrs Elton John may now be resolved in private rather than in court.

Private attempts to settle disputes in the civil courts are known formally as 'Alternative Dispute Resolution' or ADR, for short.

There is a variety of forms of ADR, including without prejudice meetings between parties (and their lawyers), mediation and arbitration.

Whereas mediation involves both parties to a claim trying to reach agreement with the help of a trained mediator, arbitration is similar to a trial in that the parties agree to submit the case to one or more skilled individual who listens to both arguments and reviews evidence before coming to a conclusion.

Another key difference is that the outcome of arbitration is legally-binding. The arbitrator has the authority to make a decision about a dispute – much like a judge. A meditator makes no such determination. The terms of a mediated settlement need to be rubber-stamped by a judge (if proceedings have already been issued) or made subject to a contract between the parties before taking effect.

Under the rules which govern the conduct of privacy and defamation claims before they are issued at court (the 'pre-action protocol'), those making and defending claims are required to at least try and come to a settlement via ADR rather than in court.

Litigants who fail to engage in ADR attempts without very good reason are likely to face substantial criticism from the courts and may even face sanctions.

ADR has obvious appeal because the old adage about there being "no such thing as bad publicity" doesn't really hold true. We are all familiar with promising or even established careers which have been truncated by adverse coverage of one sort or another.

More than negative headlines, heading to court means legal disputes taking longer to conclude and, therefore, racking up larger legal bills.

There are surely not too many individuals who will commit to costly court proceedings over matters which could be settled more cheaply and quickly.

If press reports are correct, ADR is an option which Mrs Rooney is also keen to take up.

In my opinion, it amounts to common, practical sense.

For those high-profile men and women who want to retain an element of privacy, it's far better to deal with delicate disputes constructively and behind closed doors than risk an unseemly free-for-all on the news pages which a court appearance can produce.

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Laura Wilkinson is an Associate Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Commercial LitigationMedia Law departments

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