End of an era: the Waleses divorced; the lottery was born; OJ went free. After 313 days in court, McLibel draws to a close

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The Independent Online
Britain's longest-ever trial has finally sighed to a close 313 courtroom days after it started in June 1994. Now all that is awaited after yesterday's closing speeches is the judgment from Mr Justice Bell, and that is not expected until Easter at the earliest.

The defendants, the weary and impecunious "McLibel Two", are not optimistic about the judge clearing them of libelling McDonald's. But Helen Morris and David Steel are talking about mounting an appeal if he finds in favour of the $3 billion-a year hamburger multi-national, and if that fails of taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights. They claim the trial, which has taken place without a jury, has been oppressive.

The two, who have defended themselves in the absence of legal aid, made closing speeches which occupied more than six weeks. Richard Rampton QC, counsel for McDonald's, has handed in 550 pages of submissions.

And so the final day stuttered out with a series of points of law from both sides. Mr Justice Bell made no secret of his fatigue. When ex-postman David Morris spoke about something that happened in the years of pre-trial manoeuvrings the judge said: ``This was in the happy days when I knew nothing about this case.''

All those months in court have turned neither Ms Steel nor Mr Morris, both unemployed, into smooth-tongued lawyers. ``So, um, there you go . . . '' was how he concluded one point.

But their fortitude in refusing to apologise and to take on the task of defending themselves at London's Royal Courts of Justice have made them into counter-culture heroes. They have cost McDonald's a fortune and gained huge publicity for their allegations against the burger chain on the Internet and in press reports around the world. They have become minor celebrities, but it shows no sign of going to their heads. They remain ordinary, rather serious, old-fashioned anarchists.

At lunchtime, as usual, the two defendants and a few supporters went to a student cafe in the nearby London School of Economics. Meanwhile, Mr Rampton's team spurned the delights of the nearest McDonald's and took their permanently-booked lunchtime places at an Italian restaurant.

Mr Rampton, one of Britain's top libel lawyers, told The Independent that Ms Steel and Mr Morris' amateur status had slowed down the case considerably. ``It proceeds so much more slowly . . . it's frustrating in that respect." But his long, long sojourn in Court 35 was no great personal strain. ``We're paid to do a job, so it really doesn't matter.''

Paid handsomely, in fact: McDonald's legal fees will run to several million pounds and if the judge does award costs and damages against the two defendants they have next to nothing to hand over.

McDonald's claims Mr Morris, a 42-year-old single parent, and Ms Steel, 31, were leading lights in the publication and distribution of a leaflet which said that eating McDonald's food could cause bowel and breast cancer and heart disease. The leaflet also alleged staff at the chain were exploited, ill-paid and would be dismissed if they tried to join a trade union, and that the production of McDonald's food caused hunger in the Third World and the destruction of rainforests. At the top of the leaflet were the words: "McCancer, McDisease, McHunger and McDeath."

The defendants, both unemployed and reliant on state benefits, deny publishing the leaflet but argue that its contents are true.

Three other leafleteers whom McDonald's issued writs against in 1990 apologised, but not the McLibel Two. There have been 130 witnesses cross- examined, and 50 others have submitted statements. ``We say the evidence vindicated us on all of the issues raised in the leaflet,'' said Mr Morris outside court.

The McLibel Years:

Provisional IRA started and ended its ceasefire

Eurostar services started through Channel tunnel

OJ Simpson's trial started and ended in acquittal

The Oklahoma bombing killed 168

Sixteen primary school children and their teacher killed at Dunblane

Hugh Grant arrested on indecency charge in Los Angeles

Rosemary West jailed for life for Cromwell Street murders

The National Lottery started

Pop group Take That split up

Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in Israel

Headmaster Philip Lawrence stabbed to death outside his school

President Mitterrand died of cancer aged 79

The Prince and Princess of Wales divorced

Quick-fried guide to McDonald's

The McLibel case found its way into the record books by becoming the longest-running civil trial of all time in the UK. The previous longest was 103 courtroom days: In March 1872, Arthur Orton was convicted on two counts of perjury for claiming to be Roger Tichborne, brother of Baronet Alfred Tichborne. (Source: Guinness Book of Records, 1996)

Linda McCartney, wife of ex-Beatle Paul, has contributed pounds 1,000 to the legal expenses of the defendants'.

McDonald's is estimated to be paying pounds 4,000 a day on legal costs. Total costs could exceed pounds 5m.

McDonald's had to pay out $2.9m to an 81-year old-woman in Albuquerque, US. The lady claimed to have been scalded by its coffee. The company's law firm found that the coffee was poured at 82 degrees centigrade because the heat apparently increased the taste quality.

Currently there are 20,000+ McDonald's restaurants in 101 countries around the world. They serve more than 35 million customers a day.

McDonald's has opened 212 new restaurants in the UK since July 1994, making 734 in total.

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