Johnny Depp’s libel claim against The Sun newspaper over allegations that he was violent and abusive towards his ex-wife, Amber Heard, has been postponed due to the global coronavirus crisis.
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 Monday, at which the actor, Ms Heard and a number of Hollywood figures would have had to give evidence.
But Mr Justice Nicol, who was to hear the case, said on Friday that he had “reached the reluctant conclusion” that the trial would have to be adjourned as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The judge said two of Mr Depp’s legal representatives have already had to self-isolate, adding: “No-one can predict whether others involved in the case, and I do not exclude myself, will either become infected or need to self-isolate because … they have come into contact with someone who has or may have the virus.”
He said travel restrictions between the UK and France, where Mr Depp is currently, and the USA, where Ms Heard lives, were a further factor in his decision.
The judge also said it would be more difficult to assess key witnesses over video-link and that having evidence heard in different ways would be “most undesirable”.
There would also be problems with witnesses in California giving evidence “in the middle of the night”, given the time difference, he told the court.
The judge said that, while “social-distancing” measures could be taken to ensure that lawyers, members of the public and press attending court sat apart, there were other factors to take into consideration.
He said the Lord Chief Justice had announced earlier in the week that new criminal trials lasting three days or longer would be adjourned, and that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had raised the prospect of further restrictions on the London transport network.
Mr Justice Nicol added: “I recognise that I am not conducting a criminal trial, but the large number of lawyers involved, as well as the public and press who wish to attend, mean that the numbers involved would be no different.”
He said it had been “said many times” that libel trials should take place as quickly as possible to either provide vindication to the claimant for damage to their reputation, or to dismiss their claim, but that “these are not ordinary times”.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Adam Wolanski QC, for NGN, said his client was “extremely keen” for the trial to go ahead as planned.
The judge said he also received a witness statement from Ms Heard, 33, in which she confirmed “her very strong wish” for the trial to continue and was willing to give evidence over video-link from Los Angeles during the early hours of the morning.
She also said she was willing to fly to the UK if possible – despite not knowing if she would be able to return to the US and the current 14-day quarantine period put in place by the US government for those returning from Europe.
Mr Depp’s lawyers said he would not be able to travel to the UK because of the current lockdown in France, and would not be able to give evidence over video-link from his “remote location” in the south of France.
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: “As she has demonstrated, Amber is willing to give evidence on what she was subjected to, no matter the obstacles involved, and from the other side of the Atlantic.
“Mr Depp, on the other hand, will not even make the effort to leave his palatial estate in the south of France. That speaks volumes.”