The European Court of Human Rights ("ECHR") has handed down judgment in the case between the Greenpeace campaigners Helen Steel and David Morris and the United Kingdom (The case of Steel and Morris v UK (Application no. 68416/01.
The Libel Case
The litigants often referred to as the McLibel two were accused in 1990 of libel after handing out leaflets attacking the Corporation’s working practices and policies. Both Steel and Morris were low earners and could not afford to pay for legal representation. As legal aid was not available the litigants represented themselves. McDonalds won its claim in 1997 when the presiding judge Mr Justice Bell found that despite sections of the leaflet being true, the company had been libelled because other aspects of the material were defamatory. Steel and Morris were ordered to pay damages of £40,000 (McDonald's Corporation and another v. Steel and another  EWHC QB 366).
Steel and Morris complained to the ECHR of a number of breaches of their human rights and in particular, those set out in arts 6.1 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of 4 Sep 1950) in which are enshrined the rights to a fair trial and freedom of expression respectively.
The ECHR ruled that the lack of official funding had effectively given rise to procedural unfairness and denied the litigants a fair trial. It was held to have contributed to an unacceptable inequality of arms with the Corporation. The court ruled that there had been a violation of Article 6.1. The award of damages ordered against the litigants was deemed disproportionate to the legitimate aim served. The court found that the damages awarded “may also have failed to strike the right balance”, The subsequent awards were £36,000 for Steel and £40,000 for Morris.
Effect on Defamation
Steel and Morris had also objected to the way that English libel laws operated heavily in favour of multinational corporations by requiring litigants to justify every word of their allegations. The result of the ECHR judgement is that the United Kingdom law of Defamation has remained largely intact.
Effect on Legal Aid
The Government will however be obliged to reconsider its refusal to provide legal aid in such cases in the future. The courts will have to reconsider the appropriate level of quantum when large corporations sue pressure groups or individuals for libel. The judgement can be seen as a recognition of legal aid as a basic human right which ought to be made available in all types of cases where the need arises.