Triumph for small fries who took on McDonald's

story first posted in the Scotsman

THE "McLibel Two" - a pair of penniless environmental campaigners found to have libelled the burger chain McDonald’s after the longest trial of its kind in English history - won a remarkable victory yesterday when a court ruled that their original hearing was unfair.

In a written judgment, which may have implications for English libel laws, the European Court of Human Rights said that Helen Steel, 39, and David Morris, 50, should have been granted legal aid for the marathon legal battle with the food giant.

The court ruled that the government’s failure to provide them with legal aid effectively denied them the right to a fair trial. It also found that the 1997 ruling deprived them of their freedom of expression, and awarded them £24,000 damages and £32,000 in costs.

Last night, the ruling was being studied by lawyers from the Department of Constitutional Affairs to determine whether libel laws, particularly the right to legal aid to defend defamation actions, required to be updated.

Since the "McLibel" ruling in 1997, the law in England and Wales has been amended to offer legal aid in libel cases under exceptional circumstances. Yesterday, Ms Steel, a trainee electrician, and Mr Morris, a postman, were "elated" by the decision. They returned to the London branch of McDonald’s, where they began their campaigning two decades ago, and vowed to keep fighting. Ms Steel said: "I am glad the legal battle is over but the struggle for a better world continues, and we are in for the long haul.

People should always stand and fight for what they believe." Their legal ordeal began after they distributed a pamphlet, What’s wrong with McDonald’s, in 1984, accusing the fast-food company of starving the Third World, destroying rainforests and selling unhealthy food.

Though they had no hand in writing it, along with three others they were accused of libel. The other three apologised in court and undertook not to repeat the allegations. Ms Steel and Mr Morris refused to do the same and, as they were refused legal aid and could not afford lawyers, chose to defend themselves against McDonald’s.

1997, a judge found the leaflet was true when it accused McDonald’s of paying low wages to workers, being responsible for cruelty to some animals used in its products and exploiting children in advertising campaigns. But he decided other aspects of the material were defamatory and ordered the pair to pay damages of £40,000 to McDonald’s.

They refused to pay a penny. Instead, the pair, from Tottenham, north London, launched action against the UK government over its libel laws. They took their case to the European Court in Strasbourg, arguing that they should have been granted legal aid to pay for proper legal representation.

They argued their human rights had been breached because, without legal aid, they could not get a fair trial. They also argued that the current libel laws in England operated heavily in favour of big multinational corporations and infringed on their right to freedom of expression by making it impossible to criticise them. They won on both issues.

Mr Morris, said: "The result today is a vindication of all that hard work and all that resistance over the years. No-one should have gone through that just to criticise a multi-national. We are elated, it is a total victory ... The libel laws have been brought into disrepute, shown to be unfair, and they have to be changed."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Constitutional Affairs said: "The government will need time to consider the importance of this judgment. We are looking at it closely." Mark Stephens, lawyer for the pair, said: "The government is going to have to introduce legal aid for at least libel defendants. I also think it will have to simplify the libel system. It’s a really simple balance between freedom of expression and defamation, but libel cases have become more complex and libel lawyers are turning it into a Gordian knot of detail and technicalities."

Stephen Grosz, of lawyers Bindman and Partners, said the ruling may force the government to fund certain defendants in libel cases. He said: "These days the Department of Constitutional Affairs has discretion to grant legal aid in certain exceptional cases. The government may want to make it clear that in cases like this, aid should be granted to ensure a fair trial."

McDonald’s would not comment on the human rights action as such, but said in a statement: "It is important to note, although the so-called ‘McLibel’ case came to court in 1994, the allegations related to practices in the 1980s. The world has moved on since then, and so has McDonald’s."

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