'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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
house + home
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Life and Style
Bats detect and react to wind speed and direction through sensors on their wings
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living