McLibel pair win ECHR Appeal

Denial of legal aid and damages award infringement of Convention

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the McLibel pair did not receive a fair trial and that the damages awarded against them were an interference with their right of freedom of expression.

Campaigners Helen Steel and David Morris had been 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 their application to the European Court of Human Rights, the pair contended that the denial of legal aid prevented them from having a fair trial, in breach of Article 6 of the Europe Convention. Distinguishing the earlier case of McVicar v United Kingdom ([2002] ECHR 431) the Court accepted these submissions and ruled that the scale and complexity of the proceedings confronting the applicants coupled with the denial of legal aid made the proceedings unfair and an infringement of Article 6. 

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.

Whilst rejecting claims by the applicants that corporations should not be entitled to sue and that the burden of proof in defamation was itself an interference, the Court did uphold their submission that, in the circumstances, the damages award of £40,000 was a disproportionate interference with their right of freedom of expression.  

Click here for the full judgment and 5RB case report.