McLibel pair in new appeal bid

New ECHR challenge to denial of legal aid

An appeal arising from the longest-ever libel trial in British history begins today.

Helen Steel and David Morris were sued for libel by the fast-food chain McDonald’s over a leaflet they distributed in 1996. After a 63-week trial, McDonald’s were partially successful and the Defendants were ordered to pay damages of £60,000 (although this was later reduced to £40,000 by the Court of Appeal).

In proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights, the pair will contend that the denial of legal aid prevented them from having a fair trial, in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the High Court trial, Mr Morris, 50, and Ms Steel, 39, represented themselves. Although Mr Justice Bell decided that the leaflet had libelled McDonald’s, significantly the two litigants in person established that three of the allegations in the leaflet were true. 5RB’s Patrick Milmo QC and David Sherborne acted pro bono for Morris and Steel at an earlier interlocutory appeal.

The two campaigners will also contend that large companies like McDonald’s should not be allowed to sue unless allegations are shown to have been made in bad faith. “Ordinary people should be able to make criticisms that they think are valid about a company without having the fear of being sued for libel,” Ms Steel told BBC News.

This is not the first time that the non-availability of legal aid for libel actions has been challenged as a breach of Article 6. In May 2002, the journalist John McVicar made a similar complaint to the ECHR that he had been denied a fair trial in a libel action because legal aid was not available. His application was dismissed ([2002] ECHR 431).