'McLibel' campaigners win legal aid battle

Two environmental campaigners who took on hamburger chain McDonald's and lost today won their claim that the libel trial was unfair.

The European Court of Human Rights said the UK legal system breached the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression.

The verdict from the Strasbourg court is a last-minute victory for Helen Steel and David Morris - and could force the Government to change libel laws which they claimed stifled their free speech and favoured the rich.

Today's result signals the end of a David and Goliath struggle which pitted the impoverished campaigners from Tottenham, north London, against the power of a huge multi-national company.

McDonald's launched the libel action after Ms Steel and Mr Morris took part in a leafleting campaign against the company.

They had been handing out leaflets called "What's Wrong with McDonald's", accusing the company of paying low wages, cruelty to animals used in its products and dozens of other malpractices.

McDonald's won and the High Court awarded the company £40,000 in libel damages.

But the so-called "McLibel Two" refused to pay at the end of the 314-day libel trial - the longest civil or criminal action in English legal history.

Instead they went to the Strasbourg Human Rights Court, claiming the UK libel laws operated heavily in favour of companies like McDonald's.

They said the system breached their human rights because they were denied legal aid and because they were obliged to justify every word of the allegations against McDonald's.

The Human Rights judges agreed today, saying the lack of legal aid effectively denied the pair the right to a fair trial as guaranteed by the Human Rights Convention, to which the UK is a signatory. It also breached their right to freedom of expression.

A Department for Constitutional Affairs spokeswoman said: "We are studying the judgment very carefully."

The pair might now qualify for legal aid. Changes introduced in the Access to Justice Act in 2000 means people can sometimes qualify in libel actions under "special measures".

In the original libel trial Ms Steel and Mr Morris, with no legal training, found themselves up against a crack legal team appointed by McDonald's.

In their submissions to the Human Rights Court they declared: "The contrast and inequality (between the legal expertise) could not have been greater. McDonald's were represented by a QC specialising in libel law, a junior barrister, two or three solicitors and the resources of a large firm of solicitors.

"All (Steel and Morris) could hope to do was keep going, two inexperienced, untrained and exhausted individuals who were pushed to their physical and mental limits."

Unable to get legal aid, the pair could not expect a fair trial nor the right to freedom of expression, the Human Rights judges were told.

Being made to prove the absolute truth of every claim made in the leaflet protesting against McDonald's business practices contravened the basic principle of free speech Ms Steel and Mr Morris argued.

At the hearing last September Ms Steel, an unemployed gardener, said she wanted large powerful companies to be restricted from suing for libel in the same way as governmental bodies could not do so.

"Ordinary people should be able to make criticisms that they think are valid about a company without having the fear of being sued for libel."

As he awaited today's verdict Mr Morris said both he and Ms Steel already felt completely vindicated - and they would never pay the £40,000 libel damages imposed on them.

"We have already won because there is growing public concern and debate about the activities of the fast-food industry and multi-national corporations in general.

"We shouldn't have had to fight the longest case in legal history just to challenge a multi-national corporation and put our point of view over."

The director of the human rights and law reform group Justice, Roger Smith, said: "This is a wonderful victory for the sheer perseverance of two litigants who have just stuck to the task and insisted upon justice. I think it's also a victory for human rights and a recognition of legal aid as a basic human right which should be available in all types of cases where it is absolutely necessary."

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