Parts of Amber Heard’s evidence in the postponed trial of Johnny Depp’s libel claim against The Sun newspaper will be heard in private following a High Court ruling.
The Pirates Of The Caribbean star is suing the tabloid’s publisher, News Group Newspapers (NGN), and its executive editor Dan Wootton over an April 2018 article which referred to the 56-year-old as a “wife-beater”.
A two-week trial was due to start in London on March 25 at which the actor, Ms Heard and a number of Hollywood figures would have had to give evidence, but it was put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
At a remote Skype hearing on Wednesday, part of which was conducted with members of the press and public excluded, Mr Justice Nicol ruled part of Ms Heard’s evidence relating to allegations of sexual violence will be heard in private during the forthcoming trial.
He made his ruling following an application by lawyers for NGN, saying the orders sought by the publishers were “necessary and proportionate”.
The judge added: “I stress that nothing in this judgment will pre-judge the issues that I will have to decide at trial.
“Neither party will be disadvantaged by the fact that part of the trial will take place in private.
“Either in public, or in private, the claimant (Mr Depp) will have a full opportunity, so far as is proper, to challenge the evidence of Ms Heard by cross-examination.”
Earlier in the hearing, NGN’s counsel Adam Wolanski QC told the court Ms Heard, 33, who is a witness in the case, had said she found the prospect of having to give evidence in public on the confidential matters “terrifying”.
He said: “Your lordship will know this case has generated a great deal of publicity already and one of Ms Heard’s concerns… is that she has been the subject of a great deal of vilification in the press, in particular on social media.
“She is very concerned that the nature of these allegations is such that that would be the case if this confidential material is reported.”
David Sherborne, for Mr Depp, argued that allegations Ms Heard has made of both sexual and physical violence against her former husband – which Mr Depp vehemently denies – have been published previously and aired in open court.
He said Ms Heard was “no ordinary witness”, adding: “She has consistently promoted herself as a victim… and characterised her allegations as being not just about physical abuse, but sexual violence.”
Mr Sherborne said Ms Heard has “promoted herself as an activist” during an appearance before the United Nations General Assembly, which took place in 2019, and in an opinion article for the Washington Post, which is the subject of separate libel proceedings by Mr Depp in the US.
However, Mr Justice Nicol found the part of her evidence which will remain confidential was “of a different order” to allegations already in the public domain.
The exact nature of the allegations was not disclosed to the press or public and remain unknown.
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 dollar (£5.5 million) settlement to charity.
A spokeswoman for Ms Heard said: “We welcome Mr Justice Nicol’s decision to allow evidence relating to ‘sexual violence’ to be heard in closed court.
“There is simply no reason for such sensitive evidence to be exposed to the world’s press.
“We are pleased that the court made this order despite Mr Depp’s troubling argument that Amber should not benefit from the right to privacy in relation to sexual violence, because of her public association with the #metoo movement and her advocacy for victims of sexual violence at the United Nations.”
In a statement later on Wednesday, Mr Depp’s US lawyer Adam Waldman said: “Amber Heard and her friends at The Sun use sexual violence allegations as both sword and shield, depending on their need.
“They have selected some of her sexual violence allegations as the sword, providing them to social media and newspapers, even shamelessly reading them out in open court.
“Today Ms Heard and The Sun exploited important court privacy rules as a shield behind which Ms Heard’s new abuse claims can hide from open justice.
“Mr Depp, contrary to the claims of Ms Heard and her media partner, took a ‘neutral’ position in today’s hearing.
“Public or private, it will make no difference to our continued refutation of Ms Heard’s claims with evidence including her own secretly recorded audio tapes.”