Never Again Should Women Like Amber Heard Be Silenced By A Legal System That Dismisses Them As Liars And Gold-diggers... A Devastating Critique By The Actress's Lawyer In The Wake Of Her Battle With Johnny Depp
Home / ENTERTAINMENT / Never again should women like Amber Heard be silenced by a legal system that dismisses them as liars and gold-diggers… A devastating critique by the actress’s lawyer in the wake of her battle with Johnny Depp

Never again should women like Amber Heard be silenced by a legal system that dismisses them as liars and gold-diggers… A devastating critique by the actress’s lawyer in the wake of her battle with Johnny Depp

Never again should women like Amber Heard be silenced by a legal system that dismisses them as liars and gold-diggers... A devastating critique by the actress's lawyer in the wake of her battle with Johnny Depp 1

LIAR! This word was shouted, over and over, as our car pulled into the side entrance of the Royal Courts of Justice in London. The crowd of Johnny Depp fans pushed up against the vehicle, jostling for a glimpse of his ex-wife Amber Heard through the window.

It was the opening morning of what was billed as ‘the libel trial of the century’. Depp was suing The Sun newspaper for defamation for calling him a ‘wife-beater’: he claimed Amber had lied about the domestic violence she said she had suffered during their relationship. As a human rights barrister, I was representing Amber as she gave evidence in support of the newspaper’s case.

We could hear the crowd before we could see them. Bellowing, yelling, booing.

Among them were grown men dressed as Johnny Depp – or at least as his screen characters Jack Sparrow and Edward Scissorhands. They had taken up his cause as if it were their own. They held up hand-drawn placards: ‘Men too’, ‘Gold-digger’, ‘Amber LIES’, ‘Amber the Abuser’.

In Johnny Depp, it was as if they saw the victim of a cancel culture supposedly obsessed with bringing white masculinity down. He was not just someone suing in costly defamation proceedings with a huge legal team and a PR campaign of the kind very few people can afford.

The actor had somehow become an everyman, unfairly accused and subject to the same ‘witch-hunt’ that had seen the demise of every guy who had made an off-colour office joke since MeToo. Every man who had been sacked for coming on to the junior women at work or making ‘now inappropriate’ comments. They saw their own ex-wives and custody battles, and the child support they had been forced to pay.

Maybe they sympathised with Depp when they learned he had sent a message to Elton John calling his ex-wife and mother of his children, Vanessa Paradis, a ‘French extortionist c***’. Maybe they agreed with his texts calling women whores and wishing ruin and death on Amber, his ex.

They saw all of this in Johnny Depp – to them he was an anti-Establishment hero, the kind he so convincingly played in movies.

I had worked on cases that had drawn a crowd before – including representing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – but I had never seen anything like this. Celebrity fandom and misogyny converged.

I reached out to squeeze Amber’s hand.

It was 2020, four years since she had got a domestic violence restraining order against Depp from a Californian judge.

Amber had never detailed the violence she said she suffered during her relationship with Depp in public, nor did she ever want to. Before Depp’s defamation claim, Amber had only told a judge in California enough detail about the violence to obtain the original restraining order back in 2016 – long before MeToo went viral. Once she got the order, she had no interest in talking about it again and she had signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of their divorce that prevented her from doing so. It was only after MeToo that Depp would sue.

In 2018, Depp sued The Sun over an article which had questioned JK Rowling’s decision to cast Depp in her film franchise, given that Amber had been granted a restraining order by a judge and Rowling’s support for MeToo.

Depp was claiming more than £300,000 in damages and an injunction to prevent The Sun from ever reporting he was a ‘wife-beater’ again, which would also stop other media reporting it.

He would also later sue Amber in the United States, too, claiming $50 million in damages, more than enough to bankrupt Amber. Her legal costs were crippling.

He had vowed to take revenge on her after she left him. As he wrote in a text message to his agent: ‘She’s begging for total global humiliation… She’s gonna get it.’

Now, thanks to the law, he was getting his way.

Following revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, the MeToo movement went viral in 2017. At its core, MeToo is about survivors speaking out and finding solidarity in one another. In a culture of shame and silence, where survivors are kept isolated from each other, speaking out is a powerful act.

In a sense, the MeToo movement is a response to legal systems that do not serve women and girls, either because the laws are inadequate or because the response of the legal system to victims and survivors is flawed.

Only 14 per cent of sexual violence victims report the assault to police. And even if sexual assault and rape are reported, prosecutions and convictions remain depressingly low. In Britain, only 1.6 per cent of rapes reported to the police result in a charge – a rate so low that the UK Victims Commissioner, Dame Vera Baird, has said that ‘we are witnessing the decriminalisation of rape’.

Even smaller again is the number of men who are actually convicted. In the UK, less than 1 per cent of rape cases result in conviction.

But something has been happening as a reaction to the MeToo movement.

As women have been empowered to break their silence, they have faced a different kind of silencing: the silencing of those who speak out by, and through, the law.

The spike in the number of survivors speaking out has been followed by a spike in legal actions against them and the journalists who want to report their stories – in defamation, in contract, in privacy and in breach of confidence.

By far the most common legal action we have seen used against women who have spoken out or reported gender-based violence is the libel suit. Defamation law allows a person to sue for damage caused to their reputation.

As lawyers, we have seen this in our practice and watched it happen all around the world. The courts have become the battlefield, where judges grapple with competing rights: a woman’s right to speak about gender-based abuse and a man’s right to reputation.

For lawyers who understood media law, it came as no surprise that Depp chose to sue in London, where defamation law is notoriously pro-claimant.

The Sun’s article wasn’t the first to report on the claims of assault made against him but the actor and his lawyers chose The Sun as the defendant, a tabloid that they perhaps thought would be unlikely to arouse the sympathy of much of the public, or of fellow celebrities or Hollywood executives.

Amber was merely a witness, asked by The Sun to give evidence to help them prove she had not lied about the abuse she suffered in their relationship.

Soon after he sued, Depp’s PR campaign had kicked into gear. GQ magazine reported he had hired crisis-management firm Hawthorn, which acts for ‘exceptionally wealthy clients [who] call if there’s no one else to call’; its staff were ‘wolf men, fixers, public-image adjustment specialists’.

In the lead-up to the UK trial, there was a full-scale effort to paint Amber as a liar and abuser, and Depp as the ‘nice guy’ victim – the well-known tactic to ‘deny, attack and reverse the role of the victim and offender’, or ‘Darvo’ for short.

Celebrity friends gave statements in support of Depp, including his ex-wife Vanessa Paradis, who said it was not the ‘true Johnny’ she knew.

Another ex, Winona Ryder, said the allegations were ‘impossible to believe’, though, significantly, neither she nor Paradis appeared in the London court, which would have allowed them to be cross-examined. It was later reported that Ryder had hired a former US prosecutor to block the use of her testimony.

Meanwhile, a sea of online trolls targeted Amber, us as her lawyers, and the journalists reporting on the case.

We were flooded with what appeared to be bot-generated emails and tweets saying that we had been associating with a ‘criminal’ and an ‘abuser’.

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Never again should women like Amber Heard be silenced by a legal system that dismisses them as liars and gold-diggers... A devastating critique by the actress's lawyer in the wake of her battle with Johnny Depp 2

It was a sophisticated campaign: it targeted everyone who had been pictured with Amber, tweeted about Amber or tweeted about being at an event with Amber – and not just with tweets but with emails addressed to their workplace. Colleague after colleague forwarded me the identical tweets and emails they had received.

Amber and I had spent two years gathering evidence to corroborate her allegations: photos, text messages, medical records, witness evidence. She had, in my view, far more evidence than most victims of domestic abuse.

Meanwhile, Depp’s entire case was nearly struck out because of his repeated failures to disclose relevant evidence.

It was only by accident that his legal firm disclosed 70,000 of Depp’s personal text messages, including the now infamous texts between Depp and actor Paul Bettany, joking about wanting to drown and burn Amber and rape her corpse. The stage was set: he was the powerful, much-loved movie star calling her a liar. She was the younger woman who left him, got a restraining order and was trying to get on with her career. She said he was violent, he denied it.

Who was to be believed? The judge had to decide: had The Sun published things about Depp that were true? And, by extension, had Amber told the truth about his domestic violence?

It was one thing for Depp and his supporters to make all kinds of claims in the media and online, but it was another to make them in court where a judge would decide.

At the Royal Courts of Justice, I sat with Amber and her sister through 16 days of evidence. I watched as she and Depp were cross-examined over 14 separate incidents of violence, including sexual violence, which was heard in closed court to protect what was left of her privacy.

I watched as Depp’s defence used all the old, gendered tropes: she lied, she nagged him, she picked fights, she stood up to him. She was not a ‘real victim’. Much of Depp’s case was irrelevant to the central question: had he hit her?

There was certainly evidence of his violence.

In a recording that we discovered and submitted as evidence, Depp said this: ‘I headbutted you in the f***ing forehead – that doesn’t break a nose.’ Amber’s evidence was that he had headbutted her, leaving her with bruising and a suspected broken nose, and the recording supported this.

In Depp’s witness statement he claimed he had not touched her and she was uninjured.

When confronted with the recording in court, Depp conceded he had headbutted her but now claimed it was ‘accidental’. When pressed about why – if that were true – he had not included this in his written statement, he claimed that he had not read his own statement. It was all ‘too much information’ for him, and he blamed his lawyers for the factual error.

The reaction among the lawyers in the courtroom was palpable: this was a huge blow to Depp’s credibility.

Of course, there was a problem with Depp’s answer, as the judge would abruptly remind him: he had been asked at the outset of his evidence to confirm that he had read his witness statement and that it was true, and had done so.

Four months later, the judgment arrived in my inbox. I quickly scrolled through the 129 pages. Mr Justice Nicol found that what The Sun had published was substantially true.

He found there was sufficient evidence to support Amber’s account in 12 of the 14 incidents of violence pleaded by the newspaper. I immediately called Amber to give her the good news: she had been vindicated. It was a big win – for Amber, and for all women – setting an important precedent that would deter the powerful from suing to silence.

The Sun ran a triumphant headline and front page: ‘On behalf of domestic abuse survivors, we can now confirm that HE IS A WIFE-BEATER.’

The outcome was hailed by domestic violence charities, after ‘a trial which exemplified tactics used to silence and discredit victims’. Lisa King of Refuge, the largest specialist domestic violence service, said the ruling was ‘a very powerful message… power, fame and financial resources cannot be used to silence women’.

Depp’s lawyers protested what they called a ‘perverse and bewildering’ decision, but his appeal was rejected.

Depp’s supporters and online trolls went into meltdown. Wild claims were made about the judge, and about me. Thousands signed online petitions calling for the judge to be sacked, claiming he was biased and had conflicts of interests.

It was just another online misinformation campaign that bore no relationship to reality.

The judgment had restored my faith about the progress that had been made in how women are treated in the courts, if not in the media and online. ‘Surely, no one could doubt her now?’ I thought to myself.

But how wrong I was.

Amber continued to face suspicion and online attacks and abuse. The online noise attacking her drowned out the fact that the British courts had determined that she is a domestic abuse survivor.

And then came the US trial.

Two years later, on the same set of facts, the same outdated arguments were run again – this time before a jury in Virginia in the US. Depp was suing Amber for an opinion piece she wrote for the Washington Post in 2018.

In it, Amber did not name Depp or any of the underlying factual allegations of violence, but wrote from experience about how women who speak out need to be supported and necessary law reform to better support survivors.

Depp had lost his defamation case in the UK – a jurisdiction that is notoriously pro-claimant. It should have been more difficult for Depp to win in the US, where the burden of proof fell on him rather than on the defendant. By rights, she should have won – based on the evidence and the supposedly more stringent free speech protection in the US.

But after a trial streamed live on YouTube, the jury found against Amber. It decided Amber had defamed Depp, that she had lied and that she had done so with malice – and they awarded him $10 million in damages and $5 million in punitive damages.

The jury also found that Depp had defamed Amber, through the statements of his lawyer, claiming that her allegations were a hoax. She was awarded $2 million.

I believe the outcome was absurd – and the consequences have been even worse than could have been imagined, for Amber and women everywhere. And the fallout has been global.

After seeing what happened to Amber, lawyer colleagues around the world have said their clients are worried about taking action against their abusers. Some decided not to go ahead. Others reported that abusive partners were threatening them, saying they were ‘an Amber’ and no one would believe them. In the face of all this, there remain many important questions.

What message does all of this send to women who might want to speak out about their abuse? How many women will speak out if this is how they will be treated? How many more women will have watched this case and thought, ‘I can’t go through that’?

How many women now feel unable to confide in family members about their experiences after hearing them ridicule Amber?

How many women are now silenced and afraid to come forward?

How many more women will be sued and silenced? How can we make sure that the law is balanced and fair, that it protects the presumption of innocence, privacy and reputation while upholding women’s rights to live a life free from violence?

And how many women have to suffer this before the cultural narrative shifts away from the oldest tricks in the book – calling women liars, gold-diggers and whores.

These are the questions that we believe we all need to start asking – and our lawmakers need to start debating.


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