Johnny Depp’s libel trial has been described as “galling” by lawyers at a time when the criminal justice system is struggling with a massive backlog, and deeply sensitive cases are being handled remotely.
One barrister questioned why Depp’s case had been allowed to proceed in person at the High Court in London when she was having to deal over the phone or by Skype with proceedings for a child at risk of being removed from their parents.
Another said that domestic abuse victims would feel “upset” over the Hollywood actor’s high-profile lengthy trial as they waited more than a year for their case to be heard.
Depp, 57, is suing News Group Newspapers over an article in the Sun which labelled him a “wife-beater”. The actor denies ever hitting his ex-wife Amber Heard, 34, who has submitted details of 14 occasions during their relationship when she claims he assaulted her.
Meanwhile, the Criminal Bar Association said that the ongoing trial – which began almost three weeks ago – threw into sharp relief the fact that hundreds of thousands of court cases were being delayed.
The backlog of cases waiting to be heard in England and Wales has rocketed to more than half a million during the coronavirus pandemic, prompting fears that victims may drop out of delayed prosecutions.
James Rossiter, spokesperson for the CBA, which has about 3,000 members in England and Wales, said: “The trial certainly pales into insignificance compared to the number of vulnerable witnesses waiting; many of those trials are now set for 2021, 2022. The irony isn’t lost on those ordinary families without recourse to money.”
Hannah Gomersall, a barrister at Coram Chambers who specialises in children and family law, said the timing of the Depp trial made her feel uncomfortable.
“The court service has managed to find him [Depp] a direct in-person hearing at the High Court over a significant period of time when many other cases, including child removal, are happening over the phone and by Skype,” said Gomersall.
She added: “It’s the juxtaposition of having clients in extreme distress having to manage life-changing events remotely when they may not even have access to technology. It’s pretty horrible.
“Of course he’s [Depp] entitled to his day in court, like everybody else, but it’s just a bit galling. I can’t imagine how it must feel for a parent in one of our cases who has had to have their justice dealt with by phone to then turn on the news and see that case has been given priority in person.”
The number of urgent care proceedings in the family courts reportedly increased sharply during lockdown as vulnerable children were placed at greater risk from violent family members.
Gomersall dealt with four cases a week, all by phone or video software, during the pandemic with the first “in-person” hearing for months only last week. “Probably the most extreme hearings dealt with remotely are those where the court is making a decision on whether they must, on an immediate basis, remove a child from their family,” she said.
Cassie Williams, a barrister at Sheffield-based Bank House Chambers, said the backlog of untried cases in the criminal justice system – which the inspectorate that monitors the Crown Prosecution Service recently said could take a decade to clear – also risked witnesses dropping out of cases.
For domestic abuse cases, she added, the delay meant victims were forced to relive trauma a long time after the violence and risked giving the perpetrator time to claim they had mended their ways.
The timing of the Depp trial, she said, highlighted concerns.
“If I was a victim of domestic violence, I’d be upset because they’re getting their hearing during Covid and getting have all the time in the world to argue the toss, yet the everyday victims aren’t getting that chance,” said Williams. Recently the government announced 10 emergency “Nightingale courts” for socially distanced trials to tackle the backlog, but critics say the measures are nowhere near enough, with the CBA arguing for another 50 more.