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Justice for environmental activists in ‘McLibel’ defamation case

Steel and Morris v. the United Kingdom |2005

Justice for environmental activists in ‘McLibel’ defamation case

It’s a matter of free speech and if there’s a genuine body of opinion that believes that something is true then you should be able to say it.

Helen Steel, quoted on McSpotlight - © Photo Council of Europe

Background 

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.  

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court found that the UK’s denial of legal aid to Helen and David in such complex proceedings meant that they could not present their case effectively before the UK courts. They had an unfair disadvantage, compared with McDonald’s, which led to a violation of their rights.

. . . there exists a strong public interest in enabling such groups and individuals outside the mainstream to contribute to the public debate . . . on matters of public interest such as health and the environment.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, February 2005

Follow-up 

By the time the European court made its judgment, the Access to Justice Act 1999 had come into force in England and Wales, allowing for legal aid to be granted, in exceptional circumstances, in defamation cases. Updated guidance made it clear that the European court’s judgment in Helen and David’s case is the ‘benchmark’ by which other cases are to be considered. 

Northern Ireland already had a similar law in place concerning legal aid. Scotland passed new laws in 2007 and 2010, after the European court judgment in Helen and David’s case, which allow for legal aid to be granted in exceptional circumstances.