Johnny Depp waits to hear whether libel claim against The Sun will go ahead

Sian Harrison and Sam Tobin, PA

Johnny Depp is waiting to find out if his libel claim against The Sun newspaper can go ahead, following a shock move by lawyers for the tabloid less than two weeks before a planned trial.

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 his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, 34, that he was violent towards her during their marriage – claims he strenuously denies.

Amber Heard alleges Johnny Depp was violent towards her during their marriage (Anthony Devlin/PA)

In a surprise turn of events, just under two weeks before a trial of the Hollywood star’s claim is due to begin, NGN’s legal team asked trial judge Mr Justice Nicol to strike out Mr Depp’s claim at a hearing on Thursday.

Adam Wolanski QC argued Mr Depp was in “serious” breach of a court order to disclose further evidence ahead of the trial because he had not given NGN’s legal team access to a text message exchange in which he discussed drugs.

He said the messages, between Mr Depp and his assistant Nathan Holmes, were relevant because they were sent around the same time as an alleged row between the actor and Ms Heard while the pair were visiting Australia in 2015, and about which there is a “stark conflict” in their respective evidence.

But the actor’s lawyers resisted the move, with his barrister David Sherborne telling the court the messages were not relevant as they did not go to the issues between the parties and that Mr Depp had been frank about his drug taking history.

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

During the virtual hearing, Mr Wolanski read out passages of Ms Heard’s evidence in which she claims she was subjected to “a three-day ordeal of physical assaults” by her former husband, during which time he was taking MDMA, also known as ecstasy, and drinking heavily.

The barrister said Ms Heard alleges she was subjected to assaults after she challenged Mr Depp for taking a number of pills and washing them down with red wine.

Mr Wolanski said Mr Depp “expressly denies” that he took the drugs, that Ms Heard found a bag of pills or that the pair had any conversations about drug use during that time.

Instead, the actor claims the row between him and Ms Heard was not about drugs, but was caused by discussion of a post-nuptial agreement Ms Heard did not agree to, which Mr Depp said caused her to “go into a prolonged and extreme rage”, the court heard.

But Mr Wolanski said a series of text messages, which he referred to as the “Australia drugs texts”, between Mr Depp and Mr Holmes demonstrated the actor was trying to get drugs during the Australia visit.

He read out messages sent in late February and early March 2015 – shortly before the alleged incident between Mr Depp and Ms Heard – and told the court the texts included references to “happy pills”, which he said referred to MDMA, and to cocaine.

Mr Wolanski said: “There is a stark conflict of evidence as to whether the claimant took or had in his possession MDMA and other narcotics whilst in Australia in early March 2015.

“The Australia drugs texts on the face of it demonstrate that the claimant was at the very least seeking to obtain such drugs from Mr Holmes in late February and early March 2015, and in all probability had obtained and taken them.”

David Sherborne, representing Mr Depp, said the actor had not deliberately withheld evidence and argued the text messages were “not relevant” because the core issue in the case was not about his drug use.

He said: “The defendants claim, wrongly, that Mr Depp has withheld this document because it is ‘profoundly damaging to his case’; their implied accusation being that he withheld it deliberately. This is untrue.”

Mr Sherborne said NGN’s legal representatives have had access to the text messages as they form part of the evidence in separate US libel proceedings Mr Depp has brought against Ms Heard, and that Mr Depp is aware they have been given access to those documents.

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

He added: “Secondly, the issue in this case is whether the defendants can prove that the claimant committed serious domestic violence and put Ms Heard in fear.

“It is not about whether Mr Depp asks for drugs.”

Mr Justice Nicol said he would give his ruling on the strike-out application as soon as possible and that there may be a further hearing on Monday.

If the judge does rule in favour of NGN, Mr Depp can ask the court for “relief from sanctions”, which could see the trial go ahead in any event.

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 set to begin on July 7, with Mr Depp’s former partners Vanessa Paradis and Winona Ryder among the witnesses expected to give evidence.

Mr Justice Nicol said at the end of Thursday’s hearing that the trial would take place in one courtroom, with strict social distancing measures, and up to four “overspill” courtrooms would be used to accommodate those wishing to observe proceedings.

He said it was “too soon” for the court to consider reducing the distance between people from two metres, following the Government’s announcement on Wednesday which revised the rule to “one-metre plus”.

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 has previously heard are “ongoing”.

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.