What can we learn from the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard case?

Lisa O’Connor

Two top Hollywood film stars washing their dirty linen in public may be the stuff of dreams for the popular media, but it is surely a disaster for those involved.

For the last month Johnny Depp and his former wife Amber Heard have been locked in a defamation court battle, streamed to eager audiences around the world. The proceedings were issued by Depp following an article that Heard wrote for The Washington Post in 2018, in which she claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse, without mentioning Depp by name.

Divorce proceedings

Depp and Heard began their relationship in 2012, and were married in February 2015. The marriage did not last, however, and Heard filed for divorce in May 2016.

There followed some very messy court proceedings, again played out in public, in which Heard alleged that Depp had been verbally and physically abusive towards her throughout their relationship, allegations that Depp denied.

The matter was settled, and the divorce was finalised in 2017, with Depp paying Heard a settlement of $7 million, which Heard pledged to donate to charity. The settlement also included a non-disclosure agreement, preventing either party from discussing their relationship publicly.

But that was not the end of the abuse allegations against Depp. In 2018 The Sun newspaper published an article which referred to Depp as a “wife beater”. Depp sued for libel, but in 2020 the High Court in London found 12 of the 14 incidents of violence by Depp against Heard alleged by the newspaper to be proven.

Meanwhile, Heard’s article for The Washington Post was published, and Depp commenced the present proceedings.

Cross-allegations

The trial has seen both parties making allegations of domestic abuse against the other.

In his testimony, Depp made various allegations against Heard, including that she had hit him, and that she had thrown various items at him.

Heard countered, with allegations that Depp had hit her and sexually assaulted her.

Obviously, the court will have to decide where the truth lies, but the cross-allegations are a reminder that men can also be victims of domestic abuse, a fact that is often overlooked.

Protection for victims in court

But perhaps the most shocking thing about all of this is how people who claim to be victims of domestic abuse are having the matter played out so publicly.

Now, it may be that one or both of the parties might be only too happy for the case to be played out in public, seeing this as beneficial to their case.

And it should be pointed out that these are civil, rather than family, proceedings.

But if they were family proceedings in this country then they would most certainly not be publicly broadcast. Furthermore, under recent changes to the law abuse victims can expect special protections in court. These include screens in court so that one party cannot see another party when giving evidence, the option to provide evidence through a video link, and separate entrances and waiting rooms in the court building.

Effect on children

It should also be remembered that such public proceedings can affect others, not just the parties involved.

Depp and Heard did not have any children together, but they both have children of their own.

Thankfully, Depp’s two children are both now adults and hopefully therefore able to deal with the publicity surrounding the case, and Heard’s daughter is too young to know anything about it (although it might of course affect her as she grows up).

But if there are children who could be affected by their parents arguing over their private lives in the full public gaze then surely the case should be heard in private, or better still have been resolved without going to court?