After fifteen years, the 'McLibel Two' can toast victory in their battle with a burger behemoth

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Vindicated in the longest court battle in British legal history, David Morris and Helen Steel celebrated in the Strand yesterday - not with the customary champagne outside the High Court, but with a demonstration outside McDonald's.

Vindicated in the longest court battle in British legal history, David Morris and Helen Steel celebrated in the Strand yesterday - not with the customary champagne outside the High Court, but with a demonstration outside McDonald's.

For 15 years the two activists from north London fought a case against the world's biggest burger chain which seemed doomed. Yesterday, the Goliath of the fast-food world and the Government were humbled when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the two did not have a fair trial.

Mr Morris, a former postman, hailed the ruling as a "total victory", adding: "It has been an empowering experience because it shows that ordinary people like us can stand up against seemingly impossible odds and win".

True though that may be, it does not explain the importance of yesterday's court victory. The determination of two activists has shaken a multinational, stirred a debate about food and health and prompted a review of British libel law. Because of the "McLibel Two", the rich and powerful may no longer be able to go to court safe in the knowledge that everything is stacked in their favour.

One of the most remarkable stories in British legal history is also the tale of how McDonald's committed one of the biggest own goals in the annals of corporate public relations.

The story began when a pamphlet, "What's Wrong with McDonald's", was distributed which accused McDonald's of selling unhealthy food. Neither Mr Morris, now 50, nor Ms Steel, now 40, wrote the six-page flyer but both were members of an organisation which produced it called London Greenpeace (not related to the environmental group, Greenpeace).

When they served a series of libel writs against activists, McDonald's had little reason to suspect the scale of their error. Three of the accused apologised to escape legal action and even Mr Morris and Ms Steel, who fought on, believed they were destined to lose.

Mr Morris said yesterday: "We were told we did not have a cat in hell's chance ... but we decided that we had to fight because McDonald's were suing a lot of people and creating a climate of fear." With only occasional sessions of free advice from a sympathetic barrister, Keir Starmer, the two were forced back on their own resources. They had to co-ordinate their defence on Tube journeys on the way to court. The trial, which came to court in 1994, included 313 days of testimony, eight weeks of closing speeches and six months of deliberation.

Mr Starmer said yesterday that the defendants "were extremely courageous. Most people would have backed down and everyone else, in fact, did."

In the end the judge endorsed the leaflet's claim that McDonald's paid low wages to its workers, was responsible for cruelty to some of the animals used in its food products and exploited children through advertising campaigns.

Nevertheless, the verdict was that the company had been libelled and it was awarded £60,000 in damages, later reduced to £40,000 on appeal. For the multinational this was a pyrrhic victory; never before had the corporation been subjected to so much scrutiny. Mark Stephens, a solicitor who advised the "McLibel Two", argues that, without their stand, the film Super Size Me [which shows the health effects of eating a diet of McDonald's food], could never have been shown in the UK.

Yesterday's ruling in Strasbourg was against the Government rather than McDonald's because the "McLibel Two" successfully claimed that they were deprived a fair trial. The judges found that the "denial of legal aid to the applicants had deprived them of the opportunity to present their case effectively before the court".

Though it is possible under recent British law for defendants in libel cases to receive legal aid, Mr Morris's lawyers say that none have so far done so. If it is to comply with this finding [which it must], the Government will have to ensure that in future a wider category of defendants are eligible for state-funded legal advice. Second, the court found that the damages were disproportionate, and Mr Morris and Ms Steel were awarded financial damages of €20,000 (£13,700) and €15,000 respectively.

Mr Starmer concluded: "This has gone from three or four people in anoraks standing in the rain in Finchley on a Saturday afternoon, to the European Court in Strasbourg. Companies know that people without money cannot fight libel cases so they use the law to threaten everyone. It was only when someone stood up and said, 'We have nothing to lose', that they went from a position of weakness to one of strength."


1986: London Greenpeace, not connected with Greenpeace International, begins a campaign against the fast food industry, choosing McDonald's as the symbolic target. Mr Morris and Ms Steel distribute their leaflet outside a McDonald's in London.

1990: McDonald's issues libel writ. Judges say later the chain had $30bn (£15.6bn) global sales in 1995. Mr Morris is earning £65 a week; Ms Steel is out of work.

1994: Trial begins on 28 June. Denied legal aid, the campaigners represent themselves.

1997: Verdict is delivered on 19 June, making it the longest trial in English legal history. Judges uphold some allegations but rule the campaigners libelled McDonald's and order them to pay £60,000 in damages.

1999: The original verdict is confirmed on appeal but damages are cut to £40,000.

2000: The pair tell European Court of Human Rights the trial breached their rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression.

2004: The two are granted legal aid and the action is heard. They have still not paid the damages.

Yesterday: The campaigners' appeal is successful.