Johnny Depp’s lawyers have told the High Court it is now time for The Sun newspaper to prove what it published in an article at the centre of the actor’s libel claim against the tabloid.
The 57-year-old actor is suing The Sun’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 his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, 34, that he was violent towards her during their marriage – claims he strenuously denies.
In a last-ditch attempt to derail the trial, due to start next week, NGN’s legal team asked Mr Justice Nicol to strike out Mr Depp’s claim at a hearing last Thursday.
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.”
However, the judge is now hearing an application by Mr Depp’s legal team for “relief from sanctions” 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 said: “The position is that the parties are now ready for trial next week, having devoted substantial resources to this litigation, reflecting the importance of the matters in dispute.”
The barrister added: “It is now time for defendants to have to prove what they published.”
Mr Sherborne told the court it would be “wholly disproportionate” to strike out the actor’s libel claim against NGN.
He said: “The defendant’s position, effectively, is that this is a dispute between Mr Depp and Ms Heard.
“But your lordship is well aware that the defendant published these allegations to millions of readers of The Sun, both online and in hard copy.”
He added: “Not only that, they have persisted in the allegations and very publicly so, which has made those allegations even more widely reported in this country.”
Mr Sherborne said: “The central matter in dispute in these proceedings is whether or not the claimant committed multiple acts of serious unprovoked physical violence during his relationship with Amber Heard, causing her significant injuries and to be put in fear for her life.
“The documents which the court has found fell to be disclosed do not relate to any injury, violence of any kind, or argument with Ms Heard.
“Further, it cannot possibly be said that the claimant deliberately or personally withheld these documents, as the defendants have asserted as part of their strike out.
“The claimant disclosed the documents in the US proceedings; he was not trying to hide them.
“The fact that his solicitors did not regard them as falling to be disclosed is different.”
Adam Wolanski QC, for NGN and Mr Wootton, 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”.
Mr Wolanski said: “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”.
The barrister also said Mr Depp can have “vindication, if he is entitled to it” in the US libel proceedings against Ms Heard.
He said five courtrooms at the Royal Courts of Justice in London have been earmarked for use during the trial and that those courtrooms, plus the staff needed to attend to them, are being provided “largely at public expense”.
He added: “In my submission, Mr Depp has forfeited the right to this indulgence.
“He has demonstrated contempt for our courts and for your lordship.”
Mr Wolanski said the absence of any “contrition” from Mr Depp, or an apology for the breach of the court order, shows a “breathtaking arrogance”.
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.
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.