The war of the WAGs goes to trial on 9 May so, to make sure you’re up to speed, here is everything you need to know about the dispute between footballer’s wives, Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney.
How it all began
Let’s go back to October 2019. As with many celebrities, Wayne Rooney’s wife, Coleen, had both private and public Instagram accounts. Her private account was limited to friends and family and was where she shared stories about her personal life. Rooney started to notice that these stories were being published by The Sun. In order to find the culprit responsible for the leaks, Rooney engaged in a sting operation which earned her the nickname ‘Wagatha Christie’. Rooney posted fake information to her private account and, over a period of 5 months, gradually whittled down her audience by temporarily blocking certain followers and monitoring newspapers for leaked stories.
Eventually, Rooney only had one unblocked follower left: Rebekah Vardy, wife of Jamie Vardy. Rooney then published three fake ‘stories’ to her private account, all of which were later reported in the Sun. Amateur detective Rooney then posted the infamous accusation, “It’s……… Rebekah Vardy’s account”, on her public Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Vardy denied that she was the culprit responsible for the leaks and, in June 2020, issued a claim against Rooney for defamation. Rooney issued a counterclaim against Vardy for misuse of private information.
One of the key issues to determine in these proceedings is whether it was Vardy herself who used Vardy's Instagram account and shared the information with The Sun, or whether Vardy's agent did so. This is important because, as determined by Judge Warby in an earlier hearing, Rooney's post puts the blame solely on Vardy. Judge Warby concluded that the post "tells a story... of careful investigation, and builds to a revelation... it would be a poor denouncement if all that was being said was that the named individual was to be suspected of the wrongdoing, but it might be someone else". In order for Rooney to prove the truth of her allegation, she needs to prove that it was Vardy. If she cannot, Vardy may be able to claim losses for damage to her reputation and hurt feelings.
In February 2022, Mrs Justice Steyn heard various pre-trial applications, including Rooney's applications for permission to join Vardy's agent to the counterclaim and for specific disclosure of documents. There was a further hearing in April 2022 at which it was said that Vardy's agent is unfit to give evidence at the trial, documents were requested from News Group Newspapers and irrelevant parts of Rooney's witness statement (alleging Vardy of leaking information relating to other celebrities) were struck out. I discuss some of the key decisions below.
Application to join Vardy's agent to the proceedings
Rooney alleges the information was leaked either directly by Vardy or through Vardy's agent, Caroline Watt "acting on [Vardy's] instruction or with her knowing approval".
Rooney therefore applied for permission to join Watt to the proceedings for misuse of private information, on the basis that it might have been Watt who shared the stories with the Sun.
Whilst the court acknowledged there was “undoubtedly a strong factual connection between the main claim and the additional claim”, the application was refused on two grounds:
- It was brought too late. If this claim was added, the procedural timetable for this additional claim would delay the trial of Vardy’s libel claim by up to a year. Mrs Justice Steyn emphasised that libel claims require prompt redress for those who sought to vindicate their reputations. There was also no reason for the delay as Watt was mentioned in Rooney’s Defence (which stated "the Claimant sometimes provided this [information] directly, sometimes anonymously... and sometimes through third parties who were acting as approved or condoned by her (such as her friend and agent/public relations manager, Caroline Watt"). Rooney had sought to argue that the application was issued in good time as, until they inspected Vardy's documents, they only had a "working theory" that information was leaked via Watt, however the Court sided with Vardy.
- Rooney had also failed to engage in the pre-action protocol which required her to send a compliant letter before commencing a legal claim. Whilst a letter was sent to Watt, this simply requested disclosure of documents and was seen by the court to be threatening and intimidatory (particularly in circumstances where Watt was, at the time, not legally represented). Failure to engage in the pre-action protocol was considered as depriving Watt of the opportunity to understand and narrow the issues in dispute without the need for proceedings.
As a result of the failure of her application, Rooney was ordered to pay £65,000 towards Watt's legal costs.
Faulty redactions, deletion of documents and a phone lost in the North Sea
Rooney's application for a disclosure order largely arose from the fact that Vardy had redacted a number of WhatsApp messages between her and Watt, which, unfortunately for Vardy, were still able to be viewed by Rooney's lawyers due to a software glitch. Worse still, the proposed redactions seemed to refer to very relevant information, where Vardy says to Watt that she would "love to leak those stories". Rooney therefore sought further disclosure on the basis of dishonest conduct, as it was argued these should have been disclosed in their entirety.
This came against a backdrop of various unfortunate events with regards to Vardy’s disclosure (or lack of it), such as:
- Watt apparently lost her mobile phone in the North Sea in the days after a previous disclosure order;
- Watt's Twitter account was deleted in its entirety two days after Rooney's Instagram post;
- Vardy's laptop in use over the relevant period is said to "no longer function";
- Vardy deleted key messages between her and the journalist at The Sun;
- Vardy's IT expert lost the password to her WhatsApp backup files; and
- All attachments to Vardy's WhatsApp messages were deleted when transferring the data to her solicitors.
Rooney’s application was granted in part (noting that some of the disclosure requested was either not relevant or did not exist) and Mrs Justice Steyn criticised Vardy’s disclosure, agreeing that certain redactions “ought to have been disclosed”. Asides from damaging Vardy's credibility, Mrs Justice Steyn also ordered Vardy's solicitors to undertake a manual review of documents (a task which was estimated to take a costly 90 hours of solicitor's time).
Disclosure from News Group Newspapers as a “last resort”
Earlier this month, Rooney asked the court to order that certain documents from NGN (publisher of The Sun) be disclosed. This focused on communications between Vardy, Watt and nine journalists from The Sun to whom Vardy and Watt are alleged to have passed stories. David Sherborne, for Rooney, argued that this request for documents from the journalists was a "last resort" after disclosure in this case had been hit by "a series of unfortunate events". Hugh Tomlinson QC, for Vardy, responded that Vardy was "neutral" on this request and said that "Rebekah Vardy has nothing to hide".
Mrs Justice Steyn granted Rooney's request in part, but only in relation to communications between Vardy, Watt and journalist Andrew Halls (who was involved in some of the disputed stories). The judge refused the application in relation to communications with the other eight journalists, labelling this a “fishing expedition”.
Key witness, Watt, unfit to give evidence
Vardy initially served a witness statement of Watt with the intention of calling her to give oral evidence at trial. At the beginning of April 2022, however - just one month before trial - Vardy's solicitors presented a forensic psychiatrist report to the court which concluded that Watt is not fit to appear before the court to give evidence and be cross-examined. David Sherborne, for Rooney, argued that Watt is a “key witness”. In written arguments, he said: “Ms Watt is now saying that she is too ill to attend court to be cross-examined on the events and allegations concerning her, although she was and is able to provide a lengthy witness statement about them, provided she is not questioned about it… [Rooney’s] position is that Ms Watt’s concern about giving evidence is because of the realisation that her evidence is untrue and therefore she is scared of being tested upon it.”
Watt has also now withdrawn a source protection waiver she had previously made, which would have permitted journalists at The Sun to disclose whether she was the source of any alleged leaks. The effect of this is that Rooney's barrister will be limited in questioning any journalists from The Sun about Watt at trial. Sherborne concluded that this "puts the final nail in the coffin of this being a fair trial. Only half the story can be investigated".
The WAG war has demonstrated the need to act in accordance with the Civil Procedure Rules, particularly in relation to conducting disclosure properly and making applications promptly. The fact that Watt cannot be joined to the proceedings means that the trial now hinges on whether Rooney can prove it was Vardy who personally leaked the stories. This will be all the more difficult with the evidential issues in this case, both in terms of disclosure and Watt's absence from cross-examination.
The trial starts on 9 May 2022 and is scheduled for 7 days.