Court of Human Rights rules for “McLibel” duo

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2005:

STRASBURG, France–The European Court of
Human Rights on February 14, 2005 ruled that
British vegetarian activists David Morris, 50,
and Helen Steel, 39, were improperly denied
government legal aid and were convicted of libel
under an unjust law in the “McLibel” trial.
The seven-judge European Court panel
dismissed the 1997 “guilty” verdict, held that
the verdict violated Articles 6 and 10 of the
European Human Rights Convention, and awarded
Morris and Steel damages of $25,934 and $19,451,
As members of a defunct organization
called London Greenpeace, Morris and Steel in
1986 distributed flyers, which they did not
author, alleging that McDonald’s Restaurants
sell unhealthy food, produced by means which
cause animal suffering and contribute to
starvation and deforestation in economically
disadvantaged parts of the world.

Sued by McDonald’s in 1990, other
defendants dropped out when denied legal aid,
but Morris, then marginally employed, and
Steel, who was between jobs, elected to defend
The trial lasted for 313 days, over
parts of four years. The court found that the
pamphlet allegations about animal abuse were
sustained, along with allegations about
exploiting children and paying low wages, but
not some other claims, and ordered Morris and
Steel to pay McDonald’s £60,000 in damages. The
amount was cut to £40,000 on appeal in 1999.
Morris and Steel then appealed to the
European Court, represented by solicitor Mark
Stephens Keir Starmer QC. “Until now,” Starmer
said after the European Court verdict, “only the
rich and famous have been able to defend
themselves against libel writs. Now ordinary
people can participate much more effectively in
public debate without the fear that they will be
bankrupted for doing so. This case is a
milestone for free speech.”
The case was already widely regarded as
one of the biggest corporate public relations
debacles of all time, for the global scrutiny
and criticism it brought McDonald’s. McDonald’s
reportedly spent £10 million to prosecute Morris
and Steel, who raised £40,000 for their defense.
Britain was given 90 days to appeal the European Court ruling.
“Apart from paying the damages, the
government will have to open the legal aid purse
strings to impecunious defendants sued by
multinational corporations or wealthy individuals
in complex cases,” if the verdict stands, wrote
London Guardian legal correspondent Clare Dyer.
“At present,” Dyer explained,
“defamation is excluded from the scope of legal
aid. Funding can be granted in exceptional cases,
but the conditions are so tight that only one
defamation case has been funded in the five years
since the law was amended.
“The unanimous ruling from Strasbourg
will also prompt a re-examination of the libel
laws,” Dyer continued, “which many believe are
too technical and complex and too heavily
weighted in favour of claimants. The judgment
could exert a downward pressure on libel awards,”
Dyer predicted, “obliging judges to consider for
the first time the defendant’s means in fixing

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