ananova article | 15.02.2005 11:27
The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that "McLibel" environmental campaigners David Morris and Helen Steel should have been given legal aid by the British Government.
The pair were found guilty of libelling fast-food giant McDonald's in 1997 and were ordered to pay damages of £40,000 for handing out leaflets attacking the company's working practices and policies.
The verdict is the end of a separate courtroom fight in which they accused the UK Government of breaching their human rights because UK law denies libel defendants legal aid, and because the libel laws obliged them to justify every word of anti-McDonald's allegations contained in the leaflets they distributed.
Speaking outside the court, Mark Stephens, the lawyer for the pair, said: "The European Court of Human Rights found there were violations of their human rights perpetrated on them - that there was procedural unfairness in the case and that the procedures adopted were not fair."
The 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 favour 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, 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.