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Johnny Depp awaits decision on whether libel trial against The Sun will go ahead

UK News | Published:

The 57-year-old actor is suing the tabloid’s publisher, News Group Newspapers, over an April 2018 article which referred to him as a wife beater.

Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp is awaiting a decision on whether his high-profile libel claim against The Sun over allegations he was violent towards ex-wife Amber Heard will go ahead next week.

The 57-year-old actor is suing the tabloid’s publisher, News Group Newspapers (NGN), and its executive editor Dan Wootton over an April 2018 article which referred to Mr Depp as a “wife beater”.

The article related to allegations made against Mr Depp by actress Ms Heard, 34, that he was violent towards her during their marriage – claims he strenuously denies.

Magic Mike XXL premiere – London
Amber Heard alleges that Johnny Depp was violent towards her during their marriage (Anthony Devlin/PA)

In a last-ditch attempt to derail the High Court trial, due to start next Tuesday, NGN’s legal team asked Mr Justice Nicol to strike out Mr Depp’s claim.

Adam Wolanski QC argued the Hollywood star was in “serious” breach of a court order because he had not given NGN’s legal team what he referred to as the “Australia drugs texts” between Mr Depp and his assistant, Nathan Holmes.

In a ruling on Monday, Mr Justice Nicol found that Mr Depp had breached an “unless order” requiring him to disclose documents from separate libel proceedings against Ms Heard in the US – which include the text messages.

The judge said: “The Australian drug texts were adverse to the claimant’s pleaded case and/or were supportive of the defendants’ pleaded case.”

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However, Mr Depp’s legal team made an application for “relief from sanctions” at a remote hearing on Monday which, if successful, will mean the trial goes ahead despite the actor’s breach.

David Sherborne, representing Mr Depp, argued the trial should go ahead so the actor can have “vindication” over the published allegations.

He told the court it would be “wholly disproportionate” to strike out the actor’s libel claim against NGN.

However, lawyers for NGN argued the trial should not go ahead and said the disclosure exercise undertaken by Mr Depp’s lawyers was “conducted at the very least totally incompetently and quite possibly with a view to the deliberate withholding of damaging documents”.

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Mr Wolanskisaid: “In my submission, unless the whole disclosure exercise is carried out afresh with a different legal team, the defendants cannot have a fair trial.”

However, he said no such offer has been forthcoming from Mr Depp and that it is now “too late”.

Johnny Depp libel case
Amber Heard and Johnny Depp married in Los Angeles in February 2015 (Jonathan Brady/PA)

The barrister also said Mr Depp can have “vindication, if he is entitled to it” in the US libel proceedings against Ms Heard.

Mr Justice Nicol said he would give his decision on whether the trial will go ahead as soon as possible.

The alleged incident in Australia is one of 14 separate allegations of domestic violence, between early 2013 and May 2016, that NGN relies on in its pleaded defence to Mr Depp’s claim.

During the lengthy hearing on Monday, Mr Sherborne also asked the court to order Ms Heard to disclose evidence, including a covert audio recording made of a conversation between herself and her former husband in July 2016.

He also asked for “all communications” between Ms Heard and a contact saved in her phone as “Rocketman”, who Mr Depp claims is SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk, and between her and actor James Franco.

Mr Sherborne told the court Ms Heard had “two extra-marital affairs” or “extra-relationship affairs” with Mr Musk and Mr Franco while she was going out with/married to Mr Depp.

However, David Price QC, representing Ms Heard, resisted Mr Sherborne’s application for disclosure.

He said: “The court will be aware of the importance of ensuring that any litigation attack on a woman alleging domestic violence is genuinely probative of whether the domestic violence took place.

“All the more so where the woman is not a party, the litigation is high-profile and the man and/or his agents have been feeding information to the media.”

Mr Justice Nicol said he would rule on the disclosure issue as soon as he could.

Winona Ryder
Johnny Depp’s former partner Winona Ryder is expected to give evidence (Yui Mok/PA)

A three-week trial at the Royal Courts of Justice in London – which was due to start in March, but was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic – is listed to begin on July 7, with Mr Depp’s former partners Vanessa Paradis and Winona Ryder among the witnesses expected to give evidence.

The court has heard Mr Depp intends to travel from his home in France to London to give evidence, while Ms Heard is believed to have already travelled to the UK from California.

The libel claim against NGN and Mr Wootton arises out of publication of an article in The Sun in April 2018, under the headline: “Gone Potty – How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”

Mr Depp has brought separate libel proceedings against Ms Heard in the US, which the court heard are set for trial next year.

The pair met on the set of 2011 comedy The Rum Diary and married in Los Angeles in February 2015.

In May 2016, Ms Heard obtained a restraining order against Mr Depp after accusing him of abuse, which he denied.

The couple settled their divorce out of court in 2017, with Ms Heard donating her seven million US dollars (£5.5 million) settlement to charity.

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