FOURTH SECTION

FINAL DECISION

AS TO THE ADMISSIBILITY OF

Application no. 68416/01 
by Helen STEEL and David MORRIS 
against the United Kingdom

The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting on 6 April 2004 as a Chamber composed of

Mr M. Pellonpää, President
 Sir Nicolas Bratza
 Mrs V. Strážnická
 Mr R. Maruste
 Mr S. Pavlovschi
 Mr L. Garlicki, 
 Mr J. Borrego Borrego, judges
 Mr J. Casadevall, 
 Mrs E. Fura-Sandström, substitute judges
and Mr M. O'Boyle, Section Registrar,

Having regard to the above application lodged on 20 September 2000,

Having deliberated, decides as follows:

THE FACTS

The applicants, Helen Steel and David Morris, are United Kingdom nationals, who were born in 1965 and 1954 respectively and live in London. They are represented before the Court by Mark Stephens, a lawyer practising in London. The respondent Government are represented by Mr D. Walton, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

A.  The circumstances of the case

The facts of the case, as submitted by the parties, may be summarised as follows.

During the period with which this application is concerned, Ms Steel was at times employed as a part-time bar worker, earning approximately GBP 65 per week, and was at other times unwaged and dependent on income support. Mr Morris, a former postal worker, was unwaged and in receipt of income support. He was a single parent, responsible for the day to day care of his son, aged four when the trial began. At all material times the applicants were associated with London Greenpeace, a small group, unconnected with Greenpeace International, which campaigned principally on environmental and social issues.

In the mid-1980s London Greenpeace began an anti-McDonald's campaign. In 1986 a six-page leaflet entitled ““What's wrong with McDonald's?” (“the factsheet”) was produced and distributed as part of that campaign. It was last reprinted in early 1987.

The first page of the factsheet showed a grotesque cartoon image of a man, wearing a Stetson and with dollar signs in his eyes, hiding behind a “Ronald McDonald” clown mask. Running along the top of pages 2-5 was a header comprised of the McDonald's “golden arches” symbol, with the words “McDollars, McGreedy, McCancer, McMurder, McDisease ...” and so forth superimposed on it.

The text of page 2 of the factsheet read as follows (extract):

What's the connection between McDonald's and starvation in the 'Third World'?

THERE's no point feeling guilty about eating while watching starving African children on TV. If you do send money to Band Aid, or shop at Oxfam, etc., that's morally good but politically useless. It shifts the blame from governments and does nothing to challenge the power of multinational corporations.

HUNGRY FOR DOLLARS

McDonald's is one of several giant corporations with investments in vast tracts of land in poor countries, sold to them by the dollar-hungry rulers (often military) and privileged elites, evicting the small farmers that live there growing food for their own people.  
 The power of the US dollar means that in order to buy technology and manufactured goods, poor countries are trapped into producing more and more food for export to the States. Out of 40 of the world's poorest countries, 36 export food to the USA - the wealthiest.

ECONOMIC IMPERIALISM

Some 'Third World' countries, where most children are undernourished, are actually exporting their staple crops as animal feed - i.e. to fatten cattle for turning into burgers in the 'First World'. Millions of acres of the best farmland in poor countries are being used for our benefit - for tea, coffee, tobacco, etc - while people there are starving. McDonald's is directly involved in this economic imperialism, which keeps most black people poor and hungry while many whites grow fat.

GROSS MISUSE OF RESOURCES

GRAIN is fed to cattle in South American countries to produce the meat in McDonald's hamburgers. Cattle consume 10 times the amount of grain and soy that humans do: one calorie of beef demands ten calories of grain. Of the 145 million tons of grain and soy fed to livestock, only 21 million tons of meat and by-products are used. The waste is 124 million tons a year at a value of 20 billion US dollars. It has been calculated that this sum would feed, clothe and house the world's entire population for one year”.

The first page of the factsheet also included a photograph of a woman and child, with the caption:

A typical image of 'Third World' poverty - the kind often used by charities to get 'compassion money'. This diverts attention from one cause: exploitation by multinationals like McDonald's.”

The second and third pages of the factsheet contained a cartoon image of a burger, with a cow's head sticking out of one side and saying “If the slaughterhouse doesn't get you” and a man's head sticking out of the other, saying “The junk food will!” Pages 3-5 read as follows:

“FIFTY ACRES EVERY MINUTE

EVERY year an area of rainforest the size of Britain is cut down or defoliated, and burnt. Globally, one billion people depend on water flowing from these forests, which soak up rain and release it gradually. The disaster in Ethiopia and Sudan is at least partly due to uncontrolled deforestation. In Amazonia - where there are now about 100,000 beef ranches - torrential rains sweep down through the treeless valleys, eroding the land and washing away the soil. The bare earth, baked by the tropical sun, becomes useless for agriculture. It has been estimated that this destruction causes at least one species of animal, plant or insect to become extinct every few hours.

Why is it wrong for McDonald's to destroy rainforests?

AROUND the Equator there is a lush green belt of incredibly beautiful tropical forest, untouched by human development for one hundred million years, supporting about half of the Earth's life-forms, including some 30,000 plant species, and producing a major part of the planet's crucial supply of oxygen.

PET FOOD AND LITTER

McDonald's and Burger King are two of the many US corporations using lethal poisons to destroy vast areas of Central American rainforest to create grazing pastures for cattle to be sent back to the States as burgers and pet food, and to provide fast-food packaging materials. (Don't be fooled by McDonald's saying they use recycled paper: only a tiny per cent of it is. The truth is it takes 800 square miles of forest just to keep them supplied with paper for one year. Tons of this end up littering the cities of 'developed' countries.)

COLONIAL INVASION

Not only are McDonald's and many other corporations contributing to a major ecological catastrophe, they are forcing the tribal peoples in the rainforests off their ancestral territories where they have lived peacefully, without damaging their environment, for thousands of years. This is a typical example of the arrogance and viciousness of multinational companies in their endless search for more and more profit. 
 It's no exaggeration to say that when you bite into a Big Mac, you're helping McDonald's empire to wreck this planet.

What's so unhealthy about McDonald's food?

McDONALD's try to show in their 'Nutrition Guide' (which is full of impressive-looking but really quite irrelevant facts & figures) that mass-produced hamburgers, chips, colas & milkshakes, etc., are a useful and nutritious part of any diet.  
 What they don't make clear is that a diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt (sodium), and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals - which describes an average McDonald's meal - is linked with cancers of the breast and bowel, and heart disease. This is accepted medical fact, not a cranky theory. Every year in Britain, heart disease alone causes about 18,000 deaths.

FAST = JUNK

Even if they like eating them, most people recognise that processed burgers and synthetic chips, served up in paper and plastic containers, is junk-food. McDonald's prefer the name 'fast-food'. This is not just because it is manufactured and served up as quickly a possible - it has to be eaten quickly too. It's a sign of the junk-quality of Big Macs that people actually hold competitions to see who can eat one in the shortest time.

PAYING FOR THE HABIT

Chewing is essential for good health, as it promotes the flow of digestive juices which break down the food and send nutrients into the blood. McDonald's food is so lacking in bulk it is hardly possible to chew it. Even their own figures show that a 'quarter-pounder' is 48% water. This sort of fake food encourages over-eating, and the high sugar and sodium content can make people develop a kind of addiction - a 'craving'. That means more profit for McDonald's, but constipation, clogged arteries and heart attacks for many customers.

GETTING THE CHEMISTRY RIGHT

McDONALD's stripy staff uniforms, flashy lighting, bright plastic décor, 'Happy Hats' and muzak, are all part of the gimmicky dressing-up of low-quality food which has been designed down to the last detail to look and feel and taste exactly the same in any outlet anywhere in the world. To achieve this artificial conformity, McDonald's require that their 'fresh lettuce leaf', for example, is treated with twelve different chemicals just to keep it the right colour at the right crispness for the right length of time. It might as well be a bit of plastic.

How do McDonald's deliberately exploit children?

NEARLY all McDonald's advertising is aimed at children. Although the Ronald McDonald 'personality' is not as popular as their market researchers expected (probably because it is totally unoriginal), thousands of young children now think of burgers and chips every time they see a clown with orange hair.

THE NORMALITY TRAP

No parent needs to be told how difficult it is to distract a child from insisting on a certain type of food or treat. Advertisements portraying McDonald's as a happy, circus-like place where burgers and chips are provided for everybody at any hour of the day (and late at night), traps children into thinking they aren't 'normal' if they don't go there too. Appetite, necessity and - above all - money, never enter into the 'innocent' world of Ronald McDonald.  
 Few children are slow to spot the gaudy red and yellow standardised frontages in shopping centres and high streets throughout the country. McDonald's know exactly what kind of pressure this puts on people looking after children. It's hard not to give in to this 'convenient' way of keeping children 'happy', even if you haven't got much money and you try to avoid junk-food.

TOY FOOD

As if to compensate for the inadequacy of their products, McDonald's promote the consumption of meals as a 'fun event'. This turns the act of eating into a performance, with the 'glamour' of being in a McDonald's ('Just like it is in the ads!) reducing the food itself to the status of a prop.  
 Not a lot of children are interested in nutrition, and even if they were, all the gimmicks and routines with paper hats and straws and balloons hide the fact that the food they're seduced into eating is at best mediocre, at worst poisonous - and their parents know it's not even cheap.

RONALD'S DIRTY SECRET

ONCE told the grim story about how hamburgers are made, children are far less ready to join in Ronald McDonald's perverse antics. With the right prompting, a child's imagination can easily turn a clown into a bogeyman (a lot of children are very suspicious of clowns anyway). Children love a secret, and Ronald's is especially disgusting.

In what way are McDonald's responsible for torture and murder?

THE menu at McDonald's is based on meat. They sell millions of burgers every day in 35 countries throughout the world. This means the constant slaughter, day by day, of animals born and bred solely to be turned into McDonald's products.  
 Some of them - especially chickens and pigs - spend their lives in the entirely artificial conditions of huge factory farms, with no access to air or sunshine and no freedom of movement. Their deaths are bloody and barbaric.

MURDERING A BIG MAC

In the slaughterhouse, animals often struggle to escape. Cattle become frantic as they watch the animal before them in the killing-line being prodded, beaten, electrocuted and knifed.  
 A recent British government report criticised inefficient stunning methods which frequently result in animals having their throats cut while still fully conscious. McDonald's are responsible for the deaths of countless animals by this supposedly humane method.   
 We have the choice to eat meat or not. The 450 million animals killed for food in Britain every year have no choice at all. It is often said that after visiting an abattoir, people become nauseous at the thought of eating flesh. How many of us would be prepared to work in a slaughterhouse and kill the animals we eat?

WHAT'S YOUR POISON?

MEAT is responsible for 70% of all food-poisoning incidents, with chicken and minced meat (as used in burgers) being the worst offenders. When animals are slaughtered, meat can be contaminated with gut contents, faeces and urine, leading to bacterial infection. In an attempt to counteract infection in their animals, farmers routinely inject them with doses of antibiotics. These, in addition to growth-promoting hormone drugs and pesticide residues in their feed, build up in the animals' tissues and can further damage the health of people on a meat-based diet.

What's it like working for McDonald's?

THERE must be a serious problem: even though 80% of McDonald's workers are part-time, the annual staff turnover is 60% (in the USA it's 300%). It's not unusual for their restaurant-workers to quit after just four or five weeks. The reasons are not hard to find.

NO UNIONS ALLOWED

Workers in catering do badly in terms of pay and conditions. They are at work in the evenings and at weekends, doing long shifts in hot, smelly, noisy environments. Wages are low and chances of promotion minimal.  
 To improve this through Trade Union negotiation is very difficult: there is no union specifically for these workers, and the ones they could join show little interest in the problems of part-timers (mostly women). A recent survey of workers in burger-restaurants found that 80% said they needed union help over pay and conditions. Another difficulty is that the 'kitchen trade' has a high proportion of workers from ethnic minority groups who, with little chance of getting work elsewhere, are wary of being sacked - as many have been - for attempting union organisation.  
 McDonald's have a policy of preventing unionisation by getting rid of pro-union workers. So far this has succeeded everywhere in the world except Sweden, and in Dublin after a long struggle.

TRAINED TO SWEAT

It's obvious that all large chain-stores and junk-food giants depend for their fat profits on the labour of young people. McDonald's is no exception: three-quarters of its workers are under 21. The production-line system deskills the work itself: anybody can grill a hamburger, and cleaning toilets or smiling at customers needs no training. So there is no need to employ chefs or qualified staff - just anybody prepared to work for low wages.  
 As there is no legally-enforced minimum wage in Britain, McDonald's can pay what they like, helping to depress wage levels in the catering trade still further. They say they are providing jobs for school-leavers and take them on regardless of sex or race. The truth is McDonald's are only interested in recruiting cheap labour - which always means that disadvantaged groups, women and black people especially, are even more exploited by industry than they are already.”

The factsheet continued, on pages 5-6, with a number of proposals and suggestions for change, campaigning and activity, and information about London Greenpeace.

In the course of the libel action (see below), the domestic High Court found that Mr Morris had participated in the production of the factsheet in 1986, although the precise part which he played could not be identified, and had also taken part in its distribution. The judge found that Ms Steel's involvement began in early 1988 and took the form of participation in London Greenpeace's activities, sharing its anti-McDonald's aims, including distribution of the leaflet. The judge found that the applicants were responsible for the publication of “several thousand” copies of the factsheet. It was not found that this publication had any impact on the sale of McDonald's products. The domestic courts also found that the London Greenpeace factsheet had been reprinted word for word in a leaflet produced in 1987 and 1988 by an organisation based in Nottingham called Veggies Ltd. McDonald's had threatened libel proceedings against Veggies Ltd, but had agreed a settlement after Veggies rewrote the section in the leaflet about the destruction of the rainforest and changed the heading “In what way are McDonald's responsible for torture and murder?” to read “In what way are McDonald's responsible for the slaughtering and butchering of animals?”

Because London Greenpeace was not an incorporated body, no legal action could be taken directly against it. Between October 1989 and January or May 1991, McDonald's hired seven private investigators from two different firms to infiltrate the group with the aim of finding out who was responsible for writing, printing and distributing the factsheet and organising the anti-McDonald's campaign. The inquiry agents attended over 40 meetings of London Greenpeace, which were open to any member of the public who wished to attend, and other events such as “fayres” and public, fund-raising occasions. McDonald's subsequently relied on the evidence of some of these agents at trial to establish that the applicants had attended meetings and events and been closely involved with the organisation during the period when the factsheet was being produced and distributed.

On 20 September 1990 McDonald's Corporation (“US McDonald's”) and McDonald's Restaurants Limited (“UK McDonald's”) issued a writ against the applicants and three others, claiming damages for libel allegedly caused by the alleged publication by the defendants of the factsheet. McDonald's withdrew proceedings against the three other defendants, in exchange for their apology for the contents of the leaflet. 

The applicants denied publication, denied that the words complained of had the meanings attributed to them by McDonald's and denied that all or some of the meanings were capable of being defamatory. Further, they contended, in the alternative, that the words were substantially true or else were fair comment on matters of fact.

The applicants applied for legal aid but were refused on 3 June 1992, because legal aid is not available for defamation proceedings in the United Kingdom. They therefore represented themselves throughout the trial and appeal. A certain amount of money was raised by donation to assist them (for example, to pay for transcripts: see below), and they received some help from barristers and solicitors acting pro bono: thus, their initial pleadings were drafted by lawyers, they were given some advice on an ad hoc basis, and they were represented during five of the pre-trial hearings and on three occasions during the trial, including the appeal to the Court of Appeal against the trial judge's grant of leave to McDonald's to amend the Statement of Claim (see below). They submit, however, that they were severely hampered by lack of resources, not just in the way of legal advice and representation, but also when it came to administration, photocopying, note-taking, and the tracing, preparation and payment of the costs and expenses of expert and factual witnesses. Throughout the proceedings McDonald's were represented by leading and junior counsel, experienced in defamation law, and by one or two solicitors and other assistants.

In March 1994 UK McDonald's produced a press release and leaflet for distribution to their customers about the case, entitled “Why McDonald's is going to Court”. In May 1994 they produced a document called “Libel Action - Background Briefing” for distribution to the media and others. These documents included, inter alia, the allegation that the applicants had published a leaflet which they knew to be untrue, and the applicants counter-claimed for damages for libel from UK McDonald's.

Before the start of the trial there were approximately 28 interim applications, involving various issues of law and fact, some lasting as long as five days. For example, on 21 December 1993 the trial judge, Mr Justice Bell (“Bell J”), ruled that the action should be tried by a judge alone rather than a judge and jury, because it would involve the prolonged examination of documents and expert witnesses, on complicated scientific matters. This ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeal on 25 March 1994, after a hearing at which the applicants were represented pro bono.

The trial took place before Bell J between 28 June 1994 and 13 December 1996. It lasted for 313 court days, of which forty were taken up with legal argument, and was the longest trial (either civil or criminal) in English legal history. Transcripts of the trial ran to approximately 20,000 pages; there were about 40,000 pages of documentary evidence; and, in addition to many written witness statements, 130 witnesses gave oral evidence: 59 for the applicants, 71 for McDonald's. Ms Steel gave evidence in person but Mr Morris chose not to.

The applicants were unable to pay for daily transcripts of the proceedings, which cost approximately GBP 750 per day, or GBP 375 if split between the two parties. McDonald's paid the fee, and initially provided the applicants with free copies of the transcripts. However, McDonald's stopped doing this on 3 July 1995, because the applicants refused to undertake to use the transcripts only for the purposes of the trial, and not to publicise what had been said in court. The trial judge refused to order McDonald's to supply the transcripts in the absence of the applicants' undertaking, and this ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeal. Thereafter, the applicants, using donations from the public, purchased transcripts at reduced cost (GBP 25 per day), 21 days after the evidence had been given. They submit that, as a result, and without anyone to take notes in court, they were severely hampered in their ability effectively to examine and cross-examine witnesses.

During the trial, Mr Morris faced an unconnected action brought against him by the London Borough of Haringey relating to possession of a property. Mr Morris signed an affidavit (“the Haringey affidavit”) in support of his application to have those proceedings stayed until the libel trial was over, in which he stated that the libel action had arisen “from leaflets we had produced concerning, inter alia, nutrition of McDonald's food ...”. McDonald's applied for this affidavit to be adduced as evidence in the libel trial as an admission against interest on publication by Mr Morris, and Bell J agreed to this request. Mr Morris objected that the affidavit should have included the word “allegedly” but that this had been omitted because of a mistake on the part of his solicitor. The applicants' appeal to the Court of Appeal against Bell J's admission of the affidavit was refused on 25 March 1996.

On 20 November 1995, Bell J ruled on the meaning of the paragraph in the factsheet entitled “What's so unhealthy about McDonald's food?”, finding that this part of the leaflet bore the meaning:

“... that McDonald's food is very unhealthy because it is high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt (Sodium), and low in fibre, vitamins and mineral, and because eating it may well make your diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt (sodium), and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, with the very real risk that you will suffer cancer of the breast or bowel or heart disease as a result; that McDonald's know this but they do not make it clear; that they still sell the food, and they deceive customers by claiming that their food is a useful and nutritious part of any diet”.

The applicants appealed to the Court of Appeal against this ruling, initially relying on seven grounds of appeal. However, the day before the hearing on 2 April 1996 before the Court of Appeal, Ms Steel gave notice on behalf of both applicants that they were withdrawing six of the seven grounds, and now wished solely to raise the issue whether the trial judge had been wrong in determining a meaning which was more serious than that pleaded by McDonald's in its Statement of Claim. The applicants submit that they withdrew the other grounds of appeal relating to the meaning of this part of the leaflet because lack of time and legal advice prevented them from fully pursuing them. They mistakenly believed that it would remain open to them to raise these matters again at a full appeal after the conclusion of the trial. The Court of Appeal decided against the applicants on the remaining single ground, holding that the meaning determined was less severe than that pleaded by McDonald's.

In the light of the Haringey affidavit, McDonald's sought permission from the court to amend their Statement of Claim to allege that the applicants had been involved in the production of the factsheet and to allege publication dating back to September 1987. The applicants objected that such an amendment so late in the trial would be unduly prejudicial. However, on 26 April 1996 Bell J gave permission to McDonald's for the amendments; the applicants were allowed to amend their Defence accordingly.

Before the trial, the applicants had sought an order that McDonald's disclose the notes made by their enquiry agents; McDonald's had responded that there were no notes. During the course of the trial, however, it emerged that the notes did exist. The applicants applied for disclosure, which was opposed by McDonald's on the ground that the notes were protected by legal professional privilege. On 17 June 1996 Bell J ruled that the notes should be disclosed, but with those parts which did not relate to matters contained in the witness statements or oral evidence of the enquiry agents deleted.

When all the evidence had been adduced, Bell J deliberated for six months before delivering his substantive 762 page judgment on 19 June 1997. He found that the applicants had published the factsheet and summarised his findings on the truth or otherwise of the allegations as follows:

“In summary, comparing my findings with the defamatory messages in the leaflet, of which the Plaintiffs actually complained, it was and is untrue to say that either Plaintiff has been to blame for starvation in the Third World. It was and is untrue to say that they have bought vast tracts of land or any farming land in the Third World, or that they have caused the eviction of small farmers or anyone else from their land.

It was and is untrue to say that either Plaintiff has been guilty of destruction of rainforest, thereby causing wanton damage to the environment.

It was and is untrue to say that either of the Plaintiffs have used lethal poisons to destroy vast areas or any areas of Central American rainforest, or that they have forced tribal people in the rainforest off their ancestral territories.

It was and is untrue to say that either Plaintiff has lied when it has claimed to have used recycled paper.

The charge that McDonald's food is very unhealthy because it is high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt (sodium), and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, and because eating it more than just occasionally may well make your diet high in fat, sugar, animal products and salt (sodium), and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, with the very real, that is to say serious or substantial risk that you will suffer cancer of the breast or bowel or heart disease as a result, and that McDonald's know this but they do not make it clear, is untrue. However, various of the First and Second Plaintiffs' advertisements, promotions and booklets have pretended to a positive nutritional benefit which McDonald's food, high in fat and saturated fat and animal products and sodium, and at one time low in fibre, did not match.

It was true to say that the Plaintiffs exploit children by using them as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurise their parents into going into McDonald's. Although it was true to say that they use gimmicks and promote the consumption of meals at McDonald's as a fun event, it was not true to say that they use the gimmicks to cover up the true quality of their food or that they promote them as a fun event when they know that the contents of their meals could poison the children who eat them.

Although some of the particular allegations made about the rearing and slaughter of animals are not true, it was true to say, overall, that the Plaintiffs are culpably responsible for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughter of some of the animals which are used to produce their food.

It was and is untrue that the Plaintiffs sell meat products which, as they must know, expose their customers to a serious risk of food poisoning.

The charge that the Plaintiffs provide bad working conditions has not been justified, although some of the Plaintiffs' working conditions are unsatisfactory. The charge that the Plaintiffs are only interested in recruiting cheap labour and that they exploit disadvantaged groups, women and black people especially as a result, has not been justified. It was true to say that the Second Plaintiff [UK McDonald's] pays its workers low wages and thereby helps to depress wages for workers in the catering trade in Britain, but it has not been proved that the First Plaintiff [US McDonald's] pays its workers low wages. The overall sting of low wages for bad working conditions has not been justified.

It was and is untrue that the Plaintiffs have a policy of preventing unionisation by getting rid of pro-union workers.”

As regards the applicants' counter-claim, Bell J found that McDonald's allegation that the applicants had lied in the factsheet had been unjustified, although it had been justified to allege that the applicants had wrongly sought to deny responsibility for the factsheet. He held that the unjustified remarks had not been motivated by malice, but had been made in a situation of qualified privilege because McDonald's had been responding to vigorous attacks made on it in the factsheet, and he therefore entered judgment for McDonald's on the counter-claim also.

The judge awarded US McDonald's GBP 30,000 damages and UK McDonald's a further GBP 30,000. Mr Morris was severally liable for the whole GBP 60,000, and Mr Morris and Ms Steel were to be jointly and severally liable for a total of GBP 50,000 (GBP 27,500 in respect of each defendant). McDonald's did not ask for an order that the applicants pay their costs.

The applicants appealed to the Court of Appeal on 3 September 1997. The hearing (before Lord Justices Pill and May and Mr Justice Keene) began on 12 January 1999 and lasted 23 days. On 31 March 1999 the court delivered its 301 page judgment, allowing the applicants' appeal on several points, which were summarised as follows:

“On the topic of nutrition, the allegation that eating McDonald's food would lead to a very real risk of cancer of the breast and of the bowel was not proved. On pay and conditions we have found that the defamatory allegations in the leaflet were comment.

In addition to the charges found to be true by the judge - the exploiting of children by advertising, the pretence by the respondents that their food had a positive nutritional benefit, and McDonald's responsibility for cruel practices in the rearing and slaughtering of some of the animals used for their products - the further allegation that, if one eats enough McDonald's food, one's diet may well become high in fat etc., with the very real risk of heart disease, was justified. ...”

The Court of Appeal rejected the applicants' contention  that the appeal should be allowed on the basis that the action was an abuse of process or that the trial was conducted unfairly. While accepting that the action was complex, that the legal advice available to the applicants was, because of lack of funds, small in extent and that the work required of the applicants at trial was very considerable, the Court of Appeal held that it was not an abuse of process in itself for plaintiffs with great resources to bring a complicated case against unrepresented defendants of slender means to defend their legal rights. As to the conduct of the trial, the Court of Appeal noted that the trial timetable had had proper regard to the fact that the applicants were unrepresented and to their other difficulties: the applicants had been given considerable time to prepare the final submissions, to which they attached considerable importance and which were of great length, and for this purpose had possession of a full transcript of the evidence given at the trial; the trial judge had been well aware of the difficulties faced by the applicants as litigants in person and had full regard to them in his conduct of the trial, the applicants being shown considerable latitude in the manner in which they presented their case and in particular in the extent to which they were often permitted to cross-examine witnesses at great length.

The Court of Appeal reduced the damages payable to McDonald's, so that Ms Steel was now liable for a total of GBP 36,000 and Mr Morris for a total of GBP 40,000. It refused leave to the applicants to appeal to the House of Lords.

On 21 March 2000 the Appeal Committee of the House of Lords also refused the applicants leave to appeal.

B.  Relevant domestic law and practice

1. Defamation

Under English law the object of a libel action is to vindicate the plaintiff's reputation and to make reparation for the injury done by the wrongful publication of defamatory statements concerning him or her.

The plaintiff carries the burden of proving “publication”. As a matter of law, (per Bell J at p. 5 of the judgment in the applicant's case):

“any person who causes or procures or authorises or concurs in or approves the publication of a libel is as liable for its publication as a person who physically hands it or sends it off to another. It is not necessary to have written or printed the defamatory material. All those jointly concerned in the commission of a tort (civil wrong) are jointly and severally liable for it, and this applies to libel as it does to any other tort”.

A defence of justification applies where the defamatory statement is substantially true. The burden is on the defendant to prove the truth of the statement on the balance of probabilities. It is no defence to a libel action to prove that the defendant acted in good faith, believing the statement to be true. English law does, however, recognise the defence of “fair comment”, if it can be established that the defamatory statement is comment, and not an assertion of fact, and is based on a substratum of facts, the truth of which the defendant must prove.

Damage is presumed, once publication and defamatory meaning have been established.

2. Mode of trial

The Supreme Court Act 1981 provides in section 69:

“(1) Where, on the application of any party to an action to be tried in the Queen's Bench Division, the court is satisfied that there is in issue -

a claim in respect of libel, slander ...

the action shall be tried with a jury, unless the court is of opinion that the trial requires any prolonged examination of documents or accounts or any scientific or local investigation which cannot conveniently be made with a jury”.

3. Legal Aid

Throughout the relevant time, the allocation of civil legal aid in the United Kingdom was governed by the Legal Aid Act 1988. Under Schedule 2, Part II, paragraph 1 of that Act, “[p]roceedings wholly or partly in respect of defamation” were excepted from the scope of the civil legal aid scheme.

COMPLAINTS

The Court declared a number of the applicants' complaints inadmissible in its partial decision of 22 October 2002. The remaining complaints are, under Article 6 § 2 of the Convention, that the proceedings were unfair, principally because of the denial of legal aid, and, under Article 10,  that the proceedings and their outcome constituted a disproportionate interference with the applicants' right to freedom of expression.

THE LAW

A. Article 6 § 1 of the Convention

Article 6 § 1 provides:

“In the determination of his civil rights and obligations ..., everyone is entitled to a fair ... hearing ... by [a] ... tribunal...”

The applicants complain under this provision about they were denied a fair trial, primarily because of the lack of legal aid, but also as a result of the trial judge's ruling to admit as evidence an affidavit sworn by the second applicant, his refusal to allow adjournments on a number of occasions and his grant of permission to McDonald's to amend their pleadings at a late stage in the proceedings.

A. The parties' submissions

1. Legal Aid

(a) the Government

The Government submitted that the Court should be slow to impose an obligation to provide legal aid in civil cases, in view of the deliberate omission of any such obligation from the Convention. In contrast to the position in criminal proceedings (Article 6 § 3(c)), the Convention left Contracting States with a free choice of the means of ensuring effective civil access to court (the Government relied on Airey v. Ireland, judgment of 6 February 1981, Series A no. 32, § 26).  States did not have unlimited resources to fund legal aid systems, and it was therefore legitimate to impose restrictions on eligibility for legal aid in civil cases, provided such restrictions were not arbitrary (Winer v. the United Kingdom, no. 10871/84, Commission decision of 10 July 1986, Decisions and Reports 48, p. 154, at p. 171).

The Convention organs had considered the non-availability of legal aid in defamation cases under English law in six cases, and had never found it to breach Article 6 § 1 (see the Winer case, cited above; Munro v. the United Kingdom, no. 10594/83, Commission decision of  14 July 1987; H.S. and D.M. v. the United Kingdom, no. 21325/93, Commission decision of 5 May 1993; Stewart-Brady v. the United Kingdom, nos. 27436/95 and 28406/95, Commission decision of 2 July 1997; McVicar v. the United Kingdom, no. 46311/99, ECHR 2002; A. v. the United Kingdom, no. 35373/97, ECHR 2002).

The Court should not depart from this consistent jurisprudence in the present case, which, in the Government's submission, fell far short of the kind of exceptional circumstances where the provision of legal aid was “indispensable for effective access to court” (see the Airey judgment, § 26).

First, the Government argued that the law and facts at issue in the litigation were not so difficult as to make legal aid essential. The applicants' conduct of their defence and counter-claim, and their success in proving many of the allegations made in the factsheet, demonstrated that they were capable of mastering any complexities of the law of defamation as it applied to them.

Furthermore, the Government contended that it was relevant that the applicants received advice and representation pro bono on a number of occasions, particularly for some of their appearances in the Court of Appeal and in drafting their pleadings. It appeared that the applicants also raised at least GBP 40,000 to fund their defence and that they received help with note-taking and other administrative tasks from volunteers sympathetic to their cause. Both Bell J and the Court of Appeal took into account the applicants' lack of legal training: Bell J, for example, assisted the applicants by reformulating questions for witnesses and did not insist on the usual procedural formalities, such as limiting the case to that pleaded; the Court of Appeal took note in its judgment of the need to safeguard the applicants from their lack of legal skill, conducted its own research to supplement the submissions made by the applicants and allowed them to introduce the defence of fair comment at the appeal stage, even though it had not been raised at first instance. When the applicants withdrew all but one of their grounds of appeal in relation to the meaning of the factsheet's allegations about nutrition, the Court of Appeal specifically asked them if they wished to change their minds about the withdrawal.

In the Government's submission it could not be assumed, in any event, that had legal aid generally been available for the defence of defamation actions, the applicants would have been granted it. The Legal Aid Board would have had to make a decision, as it does in civil cases where legal aid is available, based on factors such as the merits of the case and whether the costs of litigation would be justified by the likely benefit to the aided party.

(b) The applicants

The applicants pointed out that the trial lasted 313 court days, plus additional days in the Court of Appeal to contest rulings made in the course of the trial, and involved about 40,000 pages of documentary evidence and 130 oral witnesses. The appeal hearing lasted 23 days. They were assisted by lawyers working pro bono in drafting their defence. In addition, during the 28 pre-trial hearings and appeals, which took place over 37 court days, the applicants were represented on eight days and in connection with five applications. During the main trial, submissions were made by lawyers on behalf of the applicants on only three occasions. They represented themselves throughout the entire appeal and at a number of pre-appeal hearings. Although sympathetic lawyers did occasionally assist, there was little they could do because the case was too complicated for someone else just to “dip into”, and because the offers of help usually came from inexperienced, junior solicitors and barristers, without the time and resources to be effective.

In addition to the more obvious disadvantages of being without experienced counsel to argue points of law and to conduct the examination and cross-examination of witnesses in court, the applicants stressed that they lacked sufficient funds for photocopying, purchasing the transcripts of each day's proceedings, tracing and proofing expert witnesses, paying the witnesses' costs and travelling expenses, note-taking in court, and so forth.

They claimed that, had they been provided with legal aid with which to trace, prepare and pay the expenses of witnesses, they would have been able to prove the truth of one or more of the charges found to have been unjustified, for example, the allegations on diet and degenerative disease, food safety, hostility to trade unionism and/or that some of McDonald's international beef supplies came from recently deforested areas.

2.  The Haringey affidavit

(a) The Government

The Government submitted that the domestic rules of evidence were intended to strike a fair balance between opposing litigants. No unfairness had been caused to the applicants by the judge's decision to admit the Haringey affidavit, which contained an admission by the second applicant that he had been involved in the production of the factsheet, since this evidence was, in any event, corroborated by other evidence adduced by McDonald's, and since the applicant could have given evidence himself or called others, such as the solicitor who prepared the affidavit, to testify that the word “allegedly” had mistakenly been omitted. Moreover, at the hearing to decide whether the affidavit should be admitted the applicants were represented by junior and leading counsel and were granted an adjournment in which to seek legal advice.

(b) The applicants

The applicants claimed that without the Haringey affidavit McDonald's would not have been able to prove that the applicants had published the factsheet. The solicitor who had prepared the affidavit, in connection with other proceedings, had made a mistake in omitting the word “alleged” in the short summary of the libel proceedings. She had confirmed in writing to the court that the second applicant had instructed her to correct the affidavit, but that she had not done so because the error had not been material to the proceedings for which the affidavit had been sworn and she could not, therefore, have justified the additional expense to the Legal Aid Board.  The applicants assumed that the solicitor's letter would be admitted in evidence, and Bell J did not warn them that it was inadmissible until the closure of evidence, so the applicants did not realise that they should have adduced further evidence to explain the mistake.

3. Oppression and lack of adjournments

(a) The Government

In deciding whether or not to grant any adjournment requested by the applicants, Bell J had to weigh the applicants' needs against McDonald's interests in having the proceedings brought to as speedy a conclusion as possible. Since the applicants conducted the case jointly, the absence of one (when, for example, Mr Morris had to care for his son who had broken his leg) was not unduly prejudicial. There were, in any event, extensive periods during the trial when the applicants could prepare: of the 929 days between the start of the trial and its conclusion, only 313 were occupied by hearings, and of the 90 weeks the High Court sat, fewer than half were five day weeks. The Court of Appeal sat for 23 days over seven working weeks. In the Government's submission, the applicants could not properly claim to have been caused unfairness, in breach of Article 6 § 1, by the refusal of certain adjournments requested by them.

 

(b) The applicants

The applicants submit that the trial was oppressive to each of them. The first applicant had to work at weekends and the second applicant had sole care of his young son. They frequently had insufficient time to prepare their case and were often ill prepared for the cross-examination of witnesses. Many requests for adjournments were sought, but few were granted. In particular, the applicants sought and were refused adjournments on the following occasions: (i) to permit Mr Morris to look after his son who had broken his leg; (ii) in March 1995 and March 1996, when Ms Steel was unable to attend court and provided letters from her doctor confirming that she was suffering from exhaustion; (iii) when McDonald's decided to stop providing transcripts to the applicants; (iv) following the amendment of McDonald's Statement of Claim. 

4.  Amendment of McDonald's Statement of Claim

(a) The Government

The Government explained that where the time limit (in this case, three years) had expired for bringing a new cause of action, English law gave the judge a discretion to permit amendment of a statement of claim, where it would be just to do so and where the amendment was based on the same or substantially the same facts as had already been pleaded. This procedural rule pursued the legitimate aim of ensuring that parties to litigation were able to present their full case to court and did not cause injustice in the instant case because McDonald's claim was already based on the applicants' longstanding and core involvement with London Greenpeace. The amendment was made before any evidence had been advanced on the subject of publication, the applicants were permitted to amend their Defence accordingly, and the Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge's ruling that it did not cause injustice or unfair prejudice to the applicants.

(b) The applicants

Prior to McDonald's amendment of their Statement of Claim in April 1996 the earliest alleged date of publication was 2 October 1989. It had been unfair for the domestic courts to allow McDonald's to extend their claim back to 21 September 1987 so many years after the events.

B. Article 10 of the Convention

The applicants also complain of a breach of Article 10 of the Convention, which provides:

“1.  Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. ...

2.  The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

(a) The Government

The Government contend that the applicants in the present case were not responsible journalists, but participants in a campaigning group carrying out a vigorous attack on McDonald's. There had been no attempt on their part to present a balanced picture, for example by giving McDonald's an opportunity to defend itself, and there was no suggestion that the applicants had carried out any research before publication. Domestic law was not arbitrary in allocating the burden of proving justification on the defendant. On the contrary, it reflected the ordinary principle that the party who asserts a particular fact should have to prove it. In many cases it would be unreasonable to expect a plaintiff to have to prove a negative, that a given allegation was untrue. Having taken it upon him or herself to publish a statement, it was not unreasonable to expect that the defendant should bear the limited burden of having to adduce evidence which showed, on the balance of probabilities, that the statement was true.

The Government reject the applicants' argument that the ability of multinational corporations, such as McDonald's, to defend their reputations by bringing defamation claims amounted to a disproportionate restriction on the ability of individuals to exercise their right to freedom of expression. They deny that there is any parallel to be drawn with the position under domestic law whereby government bodies and political parties are unable to sue for defamation: this bar was justified for the protection of the democratic process, which required free, critical expression. The reputation of  a large company might be vital for its commercial success; and the commercial success of companies of all sizes was important to society for a variety of reasons, such as fostering wealth creation, expanding the tax base and creating employment. Furthermore, the applicants' proposal that “multinational companies” should have no legal protection for their reputations was unworkably vague and it would be difficult to draft and operate legislation to that effect. Their alternative suggestion, that multinationals should have to prove loss, was also misconceived. The vindication of a plaintiff's reputation was a legitimate aim in itself and it would place enormous evidential burdens on both sides if economic loss were to become a material issue.

It was irrelevant that certain of the defamatory statements had already been published, for example in the Veggies' leaflet. A statement did not become true simply through repetition, and, even where a statement was in wide circulation and had been published by a number of authors, the defamed party must be free to take proceedings against whomever he, she or it chose.

(b)  The applicants

The applicants, for their part, claim that the domestic proceedings and their outcome were disproportionate given, inter alia, that the applicants bore the burden of proving the truth of the matters set out in the factsheet and that the damages awarded were excessive and quite beyond their means of paying. They submit, in addition, that most of the statements made in the factsheet had been published before and formed part of an ongoing debate about matters of public concern and that huge multinationals such as McDonald's, in common with political and other figures in the public eye, should be required to display a greater degree of tolerance in the face of criticism.

  The Court considers that the application raises complex issues of law and fact under Articles 6 and 10 of the Convention, the determination of which should depend on an examination of the merits. It concludes, therefore, that these aspects of the application are not manifestly ill-founded within the meaning of Article 35 § 3 of the Convention. No other grounds for declaring them inadmissible have been established.

For these reasons, the Court unanimously

Declares admissible, without prejudging the merits, the applicants' complaints under Articles 6 and 10 of the Convention.

Michael O'Boyle Matti Pellonpää 
 Registrar President

STEEL & MORRIS v. THE UNITED KINGDOM DECISION


STEEL & MORRIS v. THE UNITED KINGDOM DECISION