UK: 'McLibel' Campaigners Win Legal Aid Battle

Publisher Name: 
The Independent Online

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 favored 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 favor 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
specializing 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
multinational corporations in general.



"We shouldn't have had to fight the longest case in legal history
just to challenge a multinational 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."
AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
  • 183 Environment