McLibel victory European Court of Human Rights

By EDRi · February 24, 2005

In an important ruling in the McLibel case, the European Court of Human Rights has defended “the public’s right to criticise massive corporations whose business practices can affect people’s lives, health and the environment.”

The McLibel case dates back to 1990 when McDonald’s decided to file a libel case against 2 English people that were handing out critical leaflets in front of a branch in London. Helen Steel and Dave Morris didn’t write the leaflet themselves but became the centre of a libel case which lasted 313 days – the longest trial of any kind in English legal history. In 1994 they were ordered to pay 60.000 UK pound in damages each, because they were unable to prove every allegation in the leaflet. In appeal, in 1997 the sentence was lowered to 40.000 UK pound each. Despite the fact that many allegations were proven to be true, no sanctions were ordered against McDonald’s.

Steel and Morris were both unemployed and had no intention nor means of paying the damages. McDonald’s didn’t enforce the payment, in silent admittance critics were right in claiming this was the worst corporate PR disaster ever.

Steel and Morris went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg claiming the English libel system seriously violated their freedom of speech. They did not get any legal assistance, and were forced to prove every allegation into minute detail. The Court found UK libel law breached the European Convention on Human Rights Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression). Steel and Morris are entitled to damages worth 35.000 euro, plus a reimbursement of the fees of their defendants.

The case is covered since 1996 on the website, with abundant critical information on past and current McDonald’s business practices. A documentary about the McLibel case has been screened at many independent film festivals world wide. Currently Steel and Morris are trying to raise funds to release the documentary on DVD.

McSpotlight website

Press release European Court of Human Rights (with links to the verdict, 15.02.2005)

Documentary: McLibel: Two Worlds Collide (52 mins, 1997)