This article was co-authored by Sally Milner, Trainee Solicitor, Manchester.
On Tuesday 4 October 2022, Mrs Rebekah Vardy, who lost the high-profile libel trial known as the ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial in June 2022, was ordered to pay 90% of Mrs Colleen Rooney’s legal fees after Mrs Vardy’s claim for defamation was dismissed.
The case followed a social media post made by Mrs Rooney which went viral, accusing Mrs Vardy of leaking stories about her to the press. Mrs Rooney came to this conclusion after posting a number of false stories about herself on her personal Instagram stories account (posts which disappear after 24 hours), which were later published by The Sun newspaper.
To establish who was responsible for sharing the stories, Mrs Rooney said she changed the privacy settings on her Instagram account to make the posts visible to Mrs Vardy only. Mrs Vardy responded on Instagram shortly after the post to strongly deny any involvement.
Trial and outcome
The dispute itself did not raise any complex legal issues. The outcome of the trial was mostly based on the evidence. Mrs Vardy lost the claim brought against Mrs Rooney after the High Court Judge, The Honourable Mrs Justice Steyn questioned Mrs Vardy’s credibility as a witness, successfully establishing Mrs Rooney’s defence of truth.
As is the case with most defamation claims, the case was highly reputationally difficult. Approximately 3,000 pages of documentary evidence were produced by each party, not including witness statements and summaries, etc. The case required for the disclosure of extremely large amounts of private information, such as text and WhatsApp messages and emails, despite Mrs Vardy’s agent’s phone being “dropped” into the sea, and several media messages being lost. In her judgment, Mrs Justice Steyn was critical of the loss of key communication evidence and held that the likelihood that the loss of the phone was accidental was “slim”. Mrs Justice Steyn also found that Mrs Vardy and her agent Ms Watt “deliberately deleted or destroyed evidence”.
After winning the claim brought against her, Mrs Rooney said that she “never believed” the case should have gone to court “at such expense in times of hardship for so many people when the money could have been far better spent helping others”.
At a hearing on 4 October, Mrs Vardy’s lawyers unsuccessfully argued that she should pay only 80% of the legal fees. However, Mrs Justice Steyn disagreed, citing the destruction of evidence by Mrs Vardy during the trial. Mrs Justice Steyn described this behaviour as “outside the ordinary and reasonable conduct of proceedings”. For this reason, the judge said that costs would be assessed on an indemnity basis rather than a standard basis (which is the highest basis a court can offer) and more favourable to Mrs Rooney.
Mrs Vardy must now pay 90% of Rooney’s court costs, a greater proportion than has been ordered in previous similar cases. The judge imposed the punitive charge partly because she found that Mrs Vardy deliberately destroyed WhatsApp messages and other evidence relevant to the trial.
Mrs Rooney incurred costs of more than £2 million defending the claim. However, £350,000 of those costs were incurred ahead of the trial, so were removed to produce a final figure of £1,667,860. In addition to paying Mrs Rooney’s legal fees, Mrs Vardy will also have to pay some of the costs incurred by seven journalists who were potential witnesses but did not give evidence. Mrs Vardy has been ordered to make an initial payment of £800,000 by 15 November 2022.
The outcome of the trial perhaps provides a lesson for future litigants about the potential risk and cost of libel litigation, particularly in an environment where a great deal of communication takes place via the use of mobile phones and social media, and forensic expert evidence can be used to challenge any dispute as to the content of such communications.
Whilst Mrs Vardy may have brought the claim with hopes of preserving her reputation following Mrs Rooney’s viral “its… Rebekah Vardy” post, unfortunately she will now be responsible for paying costs of just under £2 million, having shared a great deal of private information which is now available publicly.
This serves as a reminder to those contemplating litigation to take great care when considering the commercial aspects of commencing a civil claim, in particular, in balancing the prospects of success in pursuing a claim against the likelihood of any reputational damage and its severity.