It has taken almost three years of legal arguments, millions of pounds in lawyers’ fees, and an often excruciating public trial – but at noon on Friday the world will finally learn who has won the “Wagatha Christie” libel case.
The case, brought by Rebekah Vardy against her fellow footballer’s wife Coleen Rooney, played out over seven days in May at the high court in central London. Rooney had alleged that stories from her private Instagram account were being leaked by Vardy to journalists at the Sun. Vardy said this was false and sued Rooney in an attempt to clear her name, which put the pressure on Rooney to substantiate her claim.
Potential outcomes include complete victory for Vardy and the award of substantial damages on the basis that Rooney’s circumstantial evidence was not enough to justify her defamatory allegation; vindication for Rooney on the basis that she had good reason to make the accusation against Vardy and it was in the public interest; or an uncomfortable halfway verdict where Vardy wins on a technicality but is awarded only a token sum in damages.
A media circus grew up around the trial, with headlines around the world covering details of everything from Peter Andre’s personal anatomy to Vardy’s requests to get paid for selling stories to the Sun, and claims that a mobile phone containing potentially crucial WhatsApp messages was purposefully dropped into the North Sea after a request was made to search it.
But because the use of juries has in effect been abolished for libel trials in England and Wales, there was no instant verdict as to who had won the case. When the court proceedings wrapped up, everyone moved on. The footballers’ wives and their families went on holiday, the lawyers dealt with other trials, and as far as the public were concerned it went quiet.
What has really been happening is that the high court judge Mrs Justice Steyn has spent the last two months considering the evidence and relevant aspects of law. The judge, who, as Vardy and Rooney were often reminded, was the only person who really mattered in the courtroom, has now written up her ruling. Rather than hand it down at court and get the old media circus back together, it will simply be published online at midday for the relevant parties to digest and potentially appeal against.
The case was a rare libel trial in an era when the English and Welsh legal system heavily incentivises cases being settled before they get to court. Since neither side was willing to back down, the result was a full court battle. Both parties were rich women with high media profiles who will be able to afford the legal fees regardless of the verdict – making the case as much about both sides’ reputations in the public eye as the actual legal outcome.
At the heart of the case was the question of whether Rooney – the wife of the former England footballer Wayne Rooney – could substantiate her original claim that Vardy – the wife of Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy – was the person who made the leak.
Rooney’s original accusation, after an extensive sting operation, stated that she believed “It Was………… Rebekah Vardy’s account” that was leaking stories to the Sun. Rooney always maintained that she intended her post to mean that someone with access to Rebekah Vardy’s Instagram account was doing the leaking, rather than necessarily Vardy herself.
But at a pre-trial hearing a judge ruled that Rooney was making a direct personal accusation against Vardy. This allowed Vardy to argue in court that her former agent Caroline Watt may have been the real leaker, acting without her knowledge.
Ironically, hope for Rooney could come from unlikely source – the Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr’s recent success in a libel case brought by the Brexit campaign funder Arron Banks.
That case was overseen by the same judge, who accepted Cadwalladr’s public interest defence on the basis that the journalist had “reasonable grounds to believe that her intended meaning was true” when it was made.
Rooney will be hoping that a similar interpretation of the law will be made in her favour – and will mean she was legally justified to make the claim against Vardy.