McLibel Two take Government to human rights court in legal aid row

The McLibel Two were back in court again yesterday. It was phase four of their 10-year battle with the fast-food giant McDonald's, which they see as the apotheosis of the evils of global capitalism.

The McLibel Two were back in court again yesterday. It was phase four of their 10-year battle with the fast-food giant McDonald's, which they see as the apotheosis of the evils of global capitalism.

Phase one involved the longest trial in English legal history when two "unwaged" anarchists, Dave Morris and Helen Steel, unaided by lawyers, spent three years from 1994 to 1997 in court fighting libel writs which the McDonald's Corporation served on them to stop them distributing leaflets criticising the company.

McDonald's won a hollow victory. The corporation mounted a legal defence, estimated to have cost $10m. But the McLibel Two, representing themselves without legal aid, called more than 70 scientists, researchers and former McDonald's employees to back their claim that the burger chain was to blame for everything from epidemics of heart disease and strokes to the destruction of the rainforest.

The judge ruled that McDonald's "pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which their food did not match"; "exploit children" with their advertising; are "culpably responsible for animal cruelty"; and "pay low wages, helping to depress wages in the catering trade".

In phase two, a 1999 appeal, damages were reduced from £60,000 to £40,000. In phase three, the Metropolitan Police agreed to pay £10,000 because officers had revealed the couple's home addresses to a private investigator working for McDonald's.

Yesterday, in Strasbourg, came phase four - Steel and Morris v the UK. At the Court of Human Rights they said the original case had breached their human rights. This time they were given legal aid, and Keir Starmer QC told the court that English libel law favoured the rich and powerful, thereby violating the Human Rights Convention, which guarantees the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of expression.

"The Government was put on the defensive when asked why UK law was changed in 2000 to allow legal aid for libel in exceptional cases," said Mr Morris. "How can anyone say we have freedom of expression when McDonald's spends $2bn a year on advertising and marketing, then tries to suppress the public from expressing a contrary view?"

The Government was given two weeks to answer.

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