Johnny Depp’s libel claim against The Sun postponed by coronavirus

Matthew Howe

Pirates of the Caribbean star, Johnny Depp, issued a claim against News Group Newspapers, who publish The Sun, and the paper's executive editor Dan Wootton, in relation to an article published in April 2018.

The article referred to accusations made by Mr Depp’s ex-wife, Amber Heard, who he had a public dispute with over domestic abuse allegations. Within the article, Mr Depp was referred to as ‘wife beater’.

Mr Depp claims that the accusation he is a ‘wife beater’ is untrue and that the readers of this article would believe that he had assaulted Ms Heard during their marriage. He says that as a result, his reputation was seriously harmed within the UK where The Sun is published. Mr Depp was able to issue a claim in the English courts, despite being a US citizen, because he has a reputation to protect in England, as a result of his worldwide fame.

News Group Newspapers defended the claim, saying that the article was not defamatory as it was true, one of the main defences to a claim for libel or slander. As the defendant, the onus will be on News Group Newspapers to prove the statement is true.

The 10-day trial was set to commence on 23 March 2020. However it was adjourned after Mr Depp’s solicitors claimed that Mr Depp could not fly to London due to the Covid-19 restrictions. The solicitors for News Group Newspapers argued that the claim should proceed as listed and allow witnesses to give evidence via video link.

Having considered both parties’ arguments, Justice Nicol decided that the trial needed to be adjourned in light of the circumstances. This was an unsurprising decision, as many civil hearings are being adjourned at present.

Shortly after Justice Nicol’s decision, Practice Direction 51Y was published which allowed the courts to direct that hearings be held in private to enable them to proceed remotely to secure the proper administration of justice.

The trial will be relisted for the next available dates once the restrictions ease and trials can commence in person again.

If you have been the victim of libel or slander, and require assistance and legal advice, contact us for a discussion about how we can help.