Johnny Depp in breach of court order in Sun libel battle, judge rules

Johnny Depp is in breach of a court order for failing to disclose texts, which apparently show him trying to obtain drugs, to The Sun’s lawyers ahead of his libel trial against the newspaper.

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

The article related to allegations made against him Depp by his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, 34, that he was violent towards her during their marriage – claims he strenuously denies.

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In a surprise turn of events at a hearing last Thursday, NGN’s legal team asked trial judge Mr Justice Nicol to strike out Depp’s claim.

Adam Wolanski QC argued that 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 Depp and his assistant, Nathan Holmes.

The messages, sent in late February and early March 2015 shortly before an alleged incident in Australia between Depp and Heard that she claims was “a three-day ordeal of physical assaults”,  demonstrated that Depp was trying to get drugs during the Australia visit, Wolanski said.

He told the court that references to “happy pills” and “whitey stuff” showed Depp was trying to obtain MDMA and cocaine, which he argued was “profoundly damaging to his case”.

But Depp’s barrister, David Sherborne, said the messages were not relevant as they did not relate to the allegations of domestic violence, and said Depp had been frank about his drug-taking history.

He said: “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.”

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

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

But Mr Justice Nicol did not make a declaration that Depp’s case was automatically struck out, and later heard the actor’s application for “relief from sanctions”.

Sherborne argued the trial should go ahead so Depp 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.”

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.”

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.”

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

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 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 starting on 7 July 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.”

The libel claim against NGN and 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?”

The headline of the online article was amended shortly after publication to remove the words “wife beater”, but still referred to “overwhelming evidence” that Depp “engaged in domestic violence” against Heard.

Depp has brought separate libel proceedings against 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 $7m (£5.5m) settlement to charity.

Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

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