Depp v Heard: a lesson in law or a waste of the courts’ time?

Like most other people, I was struck recently by the amount of publicity the Depp v Heard case (take 2!) was getting.

Not only had the case, I thought, already come to a close, but was it really necessary for all the dirty details of the two celebrities’ relationship to be laid out for anyone to comment on for a second time? As a law student, I asked myself whether this was really what ‘the law’ was there for. To decide the case for some squabbling celebrities in what was effectively a ‘he said/she said’ trial. The way I’m looking at it, this isn’t at all what the law of defamation’s function should be.

I’m not trying to take away from the painful, violent and difficult times both the parties have obviously endured, but a $15 million settlement and a seven-week trial seem a little extraordinary for something that could surely have been settled, well, behind closed doors? This, alongside the so-called ‘Wagatha Christie’ case, begs the question of where it does end? It seems plausible that the floodgates may now be open, and that the courts (both US and UK alike) will become clogged up with defamation battles.

To succeed with a claim in defamation, the claimant (in this case, Depp) needs to prove that the defendant (in this case, Heard) published a statement about them that is likely to cause harm to their reputation. Whilst defamation claims have notoriously been brought by ‘famous’ people (as it is often celebrities whom newspapers like to write about), the objective of defamation claims isn’t for every argument to end up a battle in court costing millions of pounds/dollars and wasting valuable judicial- and the US also jury- time.

Another interesting question the cases threw up was the difference between the UK and US legal systems. The same Depp/Heard case was tried in the two countries, but two completely different verdicts were reached. Why? One was tried by jury, and the other by judge alone. In the US trials, Depp’s lawyer deployed the tactic of distracting the judge/ jury with references to Heard’s troubled personality, therefore trying to ‘shift’ the blame onto her. In the UK, a seasoned judge had been able to see through this tactic and, arguably, came to a fairer decision based on the evidence in front of them. In the US however, Heard was effectively tried by the public, and Depp’s lawyer’s distraction tactics seemed to work a treat. The lower level of damages awarded in the UK trial also arguably represents the judge’s disdain for such cases and hope to discourage these types of trials.

So, we have a case tried in two countries, with two different verdicts, and another ongoing and still undecided case of defamation in the UK between to celebrities. It’s yet to be seen what this means for the future of the law of defamation. What do you think?

By Lara Morant @Lager

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