Harry Mount

Who is David Sherborne, libel lawyer to the stars?

Inside the world of Coleen Rooney’s ‘Wagatha Christie’ lawyer

Who is David Sherborne, libel lawyer to the stars?
(Getty)
Text settings
CommentsShare

If you’re a celeb with a burning grievance, the hottest place in town is an unassuming, Georgian terraced house in Gray’s Inn, Holborn.

Five Raymond Buildings is the number one libel set in the country. And its most prominent barrister is David Sherborne, aka ‘Orange Sherbet’ – the permatanned schmoozer with the wind-tugged, auburn tresses.

Sherborne is currently representing Coleen Rooney, wife of ex-England footballer Wayne Rooney, in the ‘Wagatha Christie’ case. She’s being sued for defamation by Rebekah Vardy, wife of Leicester striker Jamie Vardy. Mrs Vardy disputes Mrs Rooney’s allegation that Vardy leaked stories about her to the Sun.

It’s the biggest libel case at the Royal Courts of Justice since 2020, when Johnny Depp sued News Group Newspapers – and lost – over the accusation that he beat his ex-wife Amber Heard. And who represented Depp then? David Sherborne, of course.

Sherborne has already been praised by insiders for his cross-examination of Rebekah Vardy. ‘There is no direct evidence for Mrs Rooney to prove that Rebekah was the leaker,’ says media lawyer Mark Stephens. ‘But David saved the day for Coleen with the quality of his cross-examination of Mrs Vardy. He gave Coleen’s case the kiss of life.’

Sherborne’s tactic, says Stephens, was to show that ‘Mrs Vardy is a gossip with a propensity for leaking stories to the newspapers, by figures close to herself, if not by her own hand. In my view, Rebekah has, perversely, won the case for Coleen by filling in the gaps where the evidence was not available.’

It was Sherborne, too, who produced one of the highlights of the case when he described how Vardy’s agent, Caroline Watt, had dropped her phone in the North Sea after a judge said it should be searched. Sherborne said it was a shame messages between Watt and journalists who had allegedly received leaked messages were ‘lying at the bottom of the sea in Davy Jones’s locker’. ‘Who is Davy Jones?’ replied Vardy.

Bingo! Sherborne had got his golden moment: not only did Vardy look less than planet-brained; but the loss of crucial evidence was now firmly lodged in the judge’s mind. Sherborne is the Zelig of celebrity media cases. His list of clients since he was called to the Bar in 1992 reads like the most dazzling little black book on the planet.

Princess Diana, the Duchess of Sussex, Donald and Melania Trump, Chelsea Clinton, Paul McCartney, Tony and Cherie Blair, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Kate Moss, David Walliams, Elton John, the Spice Girls, the Beckhams, Paul Gascoigne and Mike Tyson… They have all instructed Sherborne.

You can see why they knocked on the door of 5 Raymond Buildings – he’s a proven winner. It was Sherborne who represented Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in their triumphant case against Hello! for printing unauthorised pictures of their wedding. Sherborne got injunctions against paparazzi for Amy Winehouse, Harry Styles and Sienna Miller.

He was also lead counsel in the hacking case against News Group Newspapers and Mirror Group Newspapers, where he represented several hundred clients and scored record damages. He was lead counsel, too, for the victims of press intrusion at the Leveson Inquiry, including Hugh Grant and J.K. Rowling.

Sherborne’s greatest victory was Mosley v NGN. That’s when he represented the late Max Mosley in his case against News Group for the News of the World story about Mosley’s prostitute orgy. Mosley won £60,000 in damages on breach of confidence, rather than on libel grounds.

Sherborne has had his setbacks, it’s true. He lost the Johnny Depp libel case. And, in 2020, the Duchess of Sussex got rid of him halfway through her case against the Mail on Sunday and replaced him with Justin Rushbrooke QC.

Rushbrooke is joint head of chambers at 5 Raymond Buildings – he is also Boris Johnson’s best friend, after they studied classics together at Balliol. Boris stayed at Rushbrooke’s house when he was kicked out by his second wife, Marina Wheeler, after another bonking exposé.

Sherborne also studied classics. After University College School, a public school in north London, he went on to New College, Oxford, where he got a First in 1990 – more than Boris could manage three years earlier, when he got a 2.1 in classics.

So Sherborne, author of The Law of Privacy and the Media, is a clever boy. The legal ranking firm Chambers and Partners declares:

He has great knowledge of the law and is also very innovative. He’s not afraid to take on a losing case and he can turn it into a winner. He’s simply the best privacy junior around. He knows the law inside out, having been involved in nearly every leading case… What he doesn’t know about defamation and privacy isn’t worth knowing.

Sherborne is also an affable fellow in the flesh. In my brief career as a barrister 23 years ago, I did a six-month pupillage at 5 Raymond Buildings. The head of chambers then was Patrick Milmo QC, the former Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s uncle.

Sherborne was one of the friendliest barristers in chambers: smiling and literally dashing – he was always rushing off to court, so much in demand was he in a corner of the law which was then a little sleepy.

The megabucks libel settlements were in decline then – the Johnny Depp and Wagatha Christie cases are a return to the good, old, fat-fee days of the 1980s. And privacy law wasn’t the money-spinner it now is. But the briefs poured in for Orange Sherbet.

Sherborne has had an athletic swordsman’s private life. Twice married, he then went out with Lord Leveson’s married junior counsel in the Leveson Inquiry, Carine Patry Hoskins. They took a trip together to sun-kissed Santorini after the public hearings ended but before the Inquiry ended, allegedly to discuss ‘the possibility of a future relationship’. They supposedly said their relationship only began after the Leveson Report was published in November 2012.

Sherborne hasn’t done badly out of 30 years of media and libel cases, either. He was paid £220,000 for his work on the Leveson Inquiry alone. So he was already a rising star when I met him, over 20 years ago. The big question is why he, unlike so many libel barristers with much lower profiles, hasn’t become a QC.

‘It is wrong that David hasn’t been preferred as a QC,’ says media lawyer Mark Stephens. ‘The gatekeepers don’t like that he is a bit showy. David has glamorous clients and there is an enormous amount of jealousy in the libel world.’

It’s true that Sherborne is no wallflower. He sticks like glue to his celebrity clients when they stand before the cameras outside the Royal Courts of Justice. The permatan, the hair, the tailored suits… They all appeal to aggrieved celebs looking for a glamourpuss lawyer.

They don’t appeal so much to other lawyers, with lower-wattage charm, who are responsible for choosing QCs, which are appointed by the Queen, on the advice of the Lord Chancellor, who is in turn advised by an independent selection panel.

But Sherborne won’t mind too much about not taking silk. With the money and exposure he’s getting from the Wagatha Christie case, Orange Sherbet will be laughing all the way to the bank – and the nearest sunbed.

Harry Mount is a barrister and author of My Brief Career – The Trials of a Young Lawyer (Short Books)