Coleen Rooney might be the first person in history who has made getting sued look good – she emerges from the “Wagatha Christie” trial not just with her online sleuthing skills completely vindicated, but with her reputation burnished to a shine.
She has also avoided incurring financial costs that would ruin all but the ultra-rich – if you lose a defamation case the usually tens of thousands awarded to your victim is the least of your problems. More serious is that you’re left on the hook not only for your own legal costs, but for those of the other party too.
It is instead Rebekah Vardy who finds herself in that unenviable position, with costs that will likely exceed a million pounds. And yet for all that this is an overwhelming “win” for Rooney, she actually gains very little from it. Her lawyers will be well-compensated for their work, but Rooney gets nothing. She will have had to spend weeks, if not months, preparing for and worrying about the case, and the prospect of losing huge sums of money.
But compared with most defendants dragged into libel cases, Rooney is in a fortunate position. She could comfortably risk the costs of the case and access top-flight legal and PR advice.
She was also lucky in her opponent. Defamation cases require the disclosure of huge amounts of information that any sane person would wish to stay private – texts, WhatsApp messages, emails and more. These proved devastating for Vardy, who despite a series of convenient deletions and losses – including a mobile phone “dropped” into the sea – had to disclose numerous unflattering and unhelpful exchanges with her then-agent.
Typically, defamation trials prove embarrassing and reputationally difficult for both parties, as well-paid lawyers work hard to damage the credibility of the other side.
Court is a lot harder to spin than most quarters of life. Judges are rarely stupid and – while on the clock, at least – lack much of a sense of humour. Everything said to a court must be true, and you risk contempt of court if dishonesty can be proved (which can come with jail time).
At a lower standard of proof, a judge is entirely free to say they don’t believe you if they suspect but cannot prove you are lying. In this case, Justice Karen Steyn was scathing in her assessment that Vardy’s former agent had likely “deliberately” flung her phone into the sea just after it had been requested.
Even with that particular vessel of data lost, all kinds of things were uncovered that Vardy no doubt wishes had been kept private. Lawyers employ forensic experts to recover texts and messages, and know every trick when it comes to back-ups. If you are going to take a case to trial, expect it to eat a year or more of your life, reveal every skeleton in your closet, and potentially cost you a fortune.
People imagine having “their day in court” will provide vindication and triumph. That’s clearly what Vardy thought when she decided to sue Rooney. Instead, she’s paid at least hundreds of thousands to be utterly and irreparably humiliated in public.
Perhaps her best hope is to serve as a warning to others. It could come to be known as the Vardy Protocol: before you instruct a lawyer, ask yourself, do you really, really want to sue over this?
[See also: Why I haven’t been watching the Women’s Euro 2022]