Two environmental activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, faced down the fast-food giant McDonald’s in what became the longest trial in English legal history.
Helen and David were part of a grassroots anti-McDonald’s campaign in the mid-1980s. The campaign group printed and distributed a leaflet which accused the corporation of environmental destruction.
McDonald’s hired private investigators to infiltrate the group and find out who was responsible for producing the leaflet and organising the campaign. The company then started libel proceedings against Helen and David.
Helen and David denied publishing the leaflet, which they claimed was not defamatory. They applied for legal aid, to cover their costs, but their application was refused because legal aid was not available for libel proceedings in the UK.
At the time, Helen was a part-time bar worker and David was a single parent raising a young son. They could not afford to effectively represent themselves throughout the trial and at appeal, despite some public support. McDonald’s, on the other hand, had a professional legal team.
After a 313-day trial, a judge made an award for damages in favour of McDonald’s. An appeal court found some of the leaflet’s claims to be true and reduced the total damages.