Erin Grieve: The Wagatha Christie trial

Erin Grieve: The Wagatha Christie trial

Erin Grieve

The curtain has fallen on one of the most absorbing trials to play out in recent years, in front of a captivated public who welcomed the light relief of a glossy WAG drama during a period of national turmoil. While the Vardy v Rooney contest undoubtedly captured the public interest those of us with experience of the courtroom have been enthralled by the legal issues which have taken the spotlight.

The facts of the enthralling WAG drama are relatively simple. Colleen Rooney, aware that certain personal stories involving her family had appeared in the press, embarked upon a fairly elaborate scheme to ascertain who had been sharing that information. In a reveal that has since led the scandal to be dubbed the “Wagatha Christie” affair, Colleen tweeted that the stories had been shared by “….Rebekah Vardy’s account”. The accusation was denied by Rebekah Vardy who claimed that her Instagram account had been hacked. Subsequently, Vardy announced that she was raising proceedings against Rooney on the basis that her reputation had been damaged by these accusations.

A statement, which may be written or spoken, is deemed to be defamatory when it is published to an audience beyond the individual whom it concerns and when it has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to that individual’s reputation. The new legislation also addresses the matter of sharing defamatory material – retweeting a defamatory statement will generally not be considered defamation in itself but ‘quote-tweeting’ or editing a defamatory post could be enough for the sharer to be found to be liable. The defences to a claim for defamation remain largely unchanged. One of the most common defences is that the statement which is said to be defamatory is in fact true, or at the least substantially true.

Colleen Rooney’s defence largely succeeded on the basis that the court held that the accusation concerning Rebekah Vardy was likely to be true based on the evidence presented. The information disclosed by Rebekah Vardy was generally trivial, and indeed often contrived solely for the purpose of allowing Rooney to ascertain who was leaking stories to the press, but this has no relevance on the court’s ruling. Individuals are inherently entitled to privacy and the veracity of the stories which were posted with the intention of seeking out the party passing on this information has no bearing on the claim or the defence. In summarising the judgement, Mrs Justice Steyn addressed the substance of the leaked material stating that “this does not detract from the conclusion that the essential sting of the libel has been shown to be true”.

The case addresses the key points of the law of defamation. One party (Rooney) made a statement, which was shared publicly, which could be said to have a damaging impact on the reputation of the subject of that statement (Vardy). In order to protect her reputation and to seek reparation by way of damages Vardy raised a claim. Following many days of evidence, which played out in the public eye and included a purported ignorance of Davey Jones and accounts of phones being lost at sea, the court held that on the basis of the evidence provided Colleen Rooney could, at least, have reasonably believed that the statement she made was substantial true. In addition, Rooney argued that the “reveal” was in the public interest on the basis that she was entitled to highlight the unsavoury practice of disclosing information concerning celebrities’ private lives to the press. While the court did not entirely accept that the method by which the reveal was made it was agreed that it was ultimately in the public interest for Rooney to share the now infamous post.

In Scotland, the law of defamation has recently received a revamp with a legislative update by way of the Defamation and Malicious Publication (Scotland) Act 2021, which became law in April 2021. The Act is intended to simplify the law of defamation in Scotland while also providing for situations which have arisen as result of technological advances. Previously, claimants looking to seek orders from the court which would entitle them to damages were forced to rely upon the common law and to refer to previous judgments support their claims. The new legislation aims to provide clarity in relation to what constitutes defamation, who can bring defamation proceedings and what possible defences are available to those who find themselves defending a claim.

The decision made by the court, and indeed the new Scottish legislation, will provide much-needed clarity on an area of law which has for some time caused uncertainty. Given the impact that defamatory statements can have, it is crucial that the law is easily accessible for both the legal profession and the general public.

While we all enjoyed the playing out of a salacious high profile trial it is important to remember that defamation can also have a devastating effect, and not just on those who have celebrity status. The old adage “think before you speak” can help one avoid finding themselves on the defending side of a defamation claim.

Erin Grieve is an associate at Addleshaw Goddard

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