A little legal news about “The Wagatha Christie Trial” – a very 2020 story
So, it’s started today, in the High Court before Mr Justice Warby. I’m assuming that I don’t need to tell you who the protagonists are but, in the unlikely event that you are not aware, just visit any of the main UK media pages and you’ll find them very quickly.
I expect that you will also be be aware that Coleen Rooney claims that she had been slowly reducing the number of people who could see her Instagram updates (over five months) until there was only one account remaining, that of fellow “WAG” Rebekah Vardy. She then posted a completely fictitious announcement that the basement of her house had been flooded. When this appeared as a story in The Sun, Coleen posted her famous tweet which, notably, is still available:
The Guardian (more than somewhat tongue in cheek) called it “the best Tweet of all time”:
Well, we all had a bit of fun so how has it ended in the High Court? Rebekah has taken it very badly. In the opening statement her lawyer, Hugh Tomlinson QC, said:
“Mrs Rooney has something like 2 million followers. The post has been liked by something like half a million people. Given the sensational matter of the allegations, it has been re-published hundreds of thousands of times [in the media].
“The post accused Mrs Vardy of either leaking her Instagram posts or being reasonably suspected of having done so. Mrs Vardy has suffered very widespread hostility and abuse. She was seven months pregnant at the time, which increased the stress.”
In her statement of claim, it was contended that she has received vicious threats and abuse as a result of the allegations, thereby suffering “extreme distress, hurt, anxiety and embarrassment” and that the offensive insults made her “feel suicidal”. It has also been claimed that her children had to be driven to school and nursery with black bin liners over the windows to hide them from the press.
In his opening submissions Mr Tomlinson said that the media had treated the dramatic dénoument as entertainment but, for his client, it had not been that at all. He added:
“Whatever leaks there were did not come from her. As a last resort she has brought this action to vindicate her reputation.”
“[in libel cases] the intention of the writer is irrelevant. What matters is what the ordinary reader understands it to mean on Twitter.”
So, what about the riposte? Well, Coleen has retained David Sherborne QC, who, according to The Tatler, fits this bill:
There’s only one lawyer that the A-list call upon when it comes to matters of defamation, privacy or confidentiality, and that’s David Sherborne. The dashing, floppy-haired lawyer was a prominent figure in the Leveson Inquiry, arguing the case for celebrities whose privacy had been violated via phone hacking orchestrated by newspapers including The News of the World. Indeed, he is so handsome, that the Evening Standard quipped at the time that he could even be mistaken for a celebrity himself.
But he’s on a bad run. Dropped by Meghan Markle (is that a bad thing?) and on the losing side in the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard case, he needs a break. Will this one provide it?
In his perhaps less than convincing opening address he said that the online post was not unequivocally blaming Vardy but “the account of Rebekah Vardy” (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/nov/19/rebekah-vardy-suing-coleen-rooney-for-libel-as-last-resort-court-told). Hmm. He continued:
“There are shades of meaning between [the respective positions] but not an enormous number of shades between those two positions…Mrs Rooney is defending the words as true.”
DAVID SHERBORNE QC
On the other hand, this could be a master stroke, bearing in mind that it was noted that the accounts of celebrities were sometimes ”curated or operated on their behalf by other people”.
The hearing was relatively short (less than an hour and a half) and Mr Justice Warby will give his judgment on the meaning of the claim that needs to be proved tomorrow (Friday).
OK, so here’s the boring but true bit. As a lawyer in a general practice in Merseyside I’ve lost count of the number of people who have approached me and asked about bringing a claim based on defamation, particularly on social media, and often with very good grounds for doing so. Some are based on truly horrible and unsubstantiated allegations. However the hard truth is that claims of this nature are beyond the means of the vast majority of people. The main reason for this is that, from April 2019, the Government decided that lawyers’ success fees under conditional fee agreements (“no win no fee”) were unrecoverable in defamation and privacy cases. This is a specialist area of law and an initial advice from a suitably experienced QC can cost in the region of £5000 before you even get going. There is some comfort to be sought from the ECJ decision in Campbell (https://www.bailii.org/cgi-bin/format.cgi?doc=/eu/cases/ECHR/2011/919.html&query=(Campbell)+AND+(v)+AND+(MGN)) but this doesn’t solve the basic problem.
Well, I can’t deny that it’s an interesting case. You might take the view from this article that I have a view about the likely outcome. From a political perspective, when the Government was rumoured to be feeding false stories to the media to flush out the “ratty” leaker about the November lockdown, the obvious drawback was that it was…leaked!
I’ll look forward to reporting the outcome some time next year (probably).