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Johnny Depp Libel Trial Commences Today7th July 2020 Media Law
I read a headline this week in the Guardian newspaper which said ‘Hollywood to come to the High Court for Johnny Depp face-off.’ It is easy to get carried away that some sort of Hollywood celebrity show trial is coming to London. John Christopher Depp II AKA Johnny Depp may be one of the most famous actors in the world but the Pirates of the Caribbean star will need to overcome the same hurdles as other libel claimants when his case commences at the High Court in London today (7th July).
It is important to remember that at the heart of the matter there is a man (celebrity or not) who feels that a newspaper (in this case the Sun) has printed something about him that has caused damage to his reputation.
Similarly, a newspaper that wishes to defend the publication of its story and is relying on evidence to stand up the story.
What is defamation? Put simply, defamation is a legal complaint against someone (or publisher of a newspaper in this case) that the Claimant thinks has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the person that the statement is about: the Claimant.
The High Court has the task of deciding the case. At a hearing in 2019 the judge described the case as a dispute of facts. Ultimately If Mr Depp was to win the case he may seek damages, an apology read in open court as well as an apology printed in the newspaper and on its website. The Court also has the power to order that an article is removed from the internet.
In April 2018, the Sun newspaper published an article on its website and in the print edition the following day. The article accused Mr Depp of domestic violence.
Johnny Depp obviously strenuously denies the allegations hence bringing the legal action. The article implied that the domestic violence was towards his former wife, the actress Amber Heard. Mr Depp and Ms Heard were married from 2015 – 2017 and separated in May 2016.
The Defendants are News Group Newspapers, publishers of the Sun newspaper, and Dan Wootton, the Executive Editor of the Sun.
We know from when the Sun filed its defence that it seeks to rely on the defence of ‘truth’ which is a statutory defence contained in section 2 of the Defamation Act 2013. Therefore, the newspaper will be seeking to prove to the Court that its article is “substantially true.”
Developments during the Litigation
Just like many of the blockbuster’s Johnny Depp has starred in, even prior to trial, this case hasn’t been without drama. The trial was initially scheduled to commence in March. The global COVID19 pandemic meant that the trial was adjourned which is perhaps a storyline twist that even the best Hollywood script writer couldn’t have written.
Back in February 2019 there was some discussion before the Court about whether a confidentiality clause in the divorce between Mr Depp and Ms Heard would prevent Ms Heard giving evidence. At the time, the Judge handling the case noted that Mr Depp was expecting Ms Heard to give evidence and the only reason Ms Heard may be prevented from giving evidence is if there was a reason under Californian law. The Court said that was an unlikely outcome, but the position would kept under review.
More recently, at a hearing in March of this year the Court was made aware of text messages that were disclosed and two audio tapes had come to light. The Court asked Mr Depp to disclose further tapes. The content and relevance of those recordings appears to be hotly contested.
In May 2020, the Court gave permission for Mr Depp to call Kate James as a witness. Ms James had been Ms Heard’s personal assistant but the Court said that a mechanic who had worked with Mr Depp could not be called as a witness.
In June 2020 the Sun newspaper asked for the case to be struck out i.e. dismissed without the trial. The Court didn’t agree to strike out the case.
Just last week the Court ordered that a third party disclosure order would not be made against Ms Heard. To explain this – Ms Heard is not a party to the case. As was explained above, Mr Depp is the Claimant and the Defendants are the publishers of the Sun newspaper and Mr Wootton. If someone is not a party to litigation, i.e. a third party, the parties are required to ask the Court if it is willing to make an order for the disclosure of documents. The Court did not allow this and refused to instruct Ms Heard to disclose documents.
Mr Depp and Ms Heard are unlikely to be the only names you recognise at the trial because the singer Vanessa Paradis and actress Winona Ryder are expected to give evidence. It appears that Mr Depp intends to rely on their evidence that he was not abusive towards them.
When is the Court’s decision due?
Judgment is rarely handed down on the final day of a complicated libel trial. The Judge usually takes time to reflect on what he or she has heard, write up the decision, and the outcome is then announced in the weeks and sometimes months after a trial takes place.
This story is far from over and we await to see what unfolds in Court over the coming days and weeks.