Whatever the outcome of Monday’s verdict in his blockbuster libel case, the world has not heard the last of Johnny Depp’s tempestuous relationship with Amber Heard.
Indeed, its consequences will linger long after the gossip columns have moved on, legal experts believe.
The Pirates of the Caribbean star’s claim against the Sun newspaper over an article labelling him a “wife beater” is merely a prelude to a far more substantial claim that Depp is bringing in the US where he is suing Heard for $50m over a column she wrote.
“This is only round one,” said Mark Stephens, an expert in media law at the law firm Howard Kennedy.
“Whoever loses is going to appeal. There’s too much in this for them not to, but do I think the appeal will be successful? No. That will be round two. Then there’s the [Depp] case against the Washington Post and Amber Heard, and she has counter-sued both Johnny Depp and his lawyer for accusing her of lying over the spousal abuse.”
“Win or lose, tomorrow’s judgment will be hugely significant,” said Emily Cox, a partner and media expert at Stewarts law firm. “If Johnny Depp wins, he will be vindicated and the more sordid aspects of the evidence at trial will likely be forgotten. If he loses, he is unlikely ever to be able to shake off the ‘wife beater’ label.”
“I think it’s fairy uncontroversial to say that this was an ill-advised case,” Stephens says. “The only winners here are the lawyers who are going to be building extensions to their homes and putting their children through private education on the back of Johnny Depp.” Stephens believes that ‘the traditional orthodoxy’ is that Depp, 57, will win. But much will hinge on whether the judge, Mr Justice Nicol, finds the star a credible witness. “I wonder whether the judge is going to say ‘I think both parties tried to do the best they could but I could not rely on Mr Depp’s recollection because he was obviously taking drugs and alcohol in industrial quantities and his recollection, however honest, was in my judgement mistaken and as a consequence of that I find for her’,” Stephens said.
The US case is not scheduled to be heard until May when Depp and Heard, 34, are both due to be filming new projects. Depp will star in the next instalment of the JK Rowling franchise Fantastic Beasts while Heard is appearing in Justice League.
So whatever the verdict, the spectre of another exhausting and potentially damaging lawsuit will be hanging over both parties for months to come.
Cox said that Depp’s claim in the US is riskier and higher stakes. “While an English judgment in favour of Depp would be good evidence for the court in Virginia, personal lives and reputations will be unpicked afresh, as London is perceived as notoriously claimant-friendly. Defamation laws in the US favour First Amendment free speech, with the burden of proof on Depp this time around. Throw into the mix a jury trial in the US, and it all becomes more of a game of Russian roulette.”
For the UK trial, Depp spent around 20 hours in the witness box over five days, facing questioning about his Hollywood lifestyle, his use of drink and drugs, allegations of violence, and his friendships with famous faces including Keith Richards and Sir Elton John.
One of Depp’s friends, Helena Bonham Carter, who has worked with him on several films, spoke out in his defence. “There’s something quite old-fashioned about Johnny, with these manners – none of it makes sense,” the actor told the Guardian. “The man’s not stupid. He wouldn’t have gone to this length if he thought he was in the wrong.”
Indeed, in his closing arguments, the actor’s barrister, David Sherborne, said Depp’s case was about vindication.
“What is important to Mr Depp is clearing his name of these appalling allegations, expanded on as it has been over the last four years, as a result of which he has lost nothing less than everything, he would say.”
Sasha Wass QC, for News Group Newspapers, argued that there was “no doubt that Mr Depp regularly and systematically abused his wife. The characterisation that he is a wife-beater is entirely truthful.”
“Win or lose, this case is going to have a serious and chilling effect on the reporting of allegations of abuse,” Stephens said. “But this is particularly true if Depp wins. Perhaps women will be more wary about coming forward and making these sort of allegations.”
Depp can expect to receive between £180,000 to £200,000 in damages if he wins, a fraction of the estimated £5m he has racked up in legal costs.