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McLibel Case | Tort Law

The McLibel case, officially known as McDonald's Corporation v Steel & Morris (1997) EWHC 366 (QB), refers to a famous and lengthy legal battle between McDonald's Corporation and two activists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, from the UK. The case is notable for being one of the longest-running cases in English legal history and for its significant implications for freedom of speech and corporate accountability.

The conflict began in 1986 when Steel and Morris, who were part of a group called London Greenpeace, started distributing leaflets criticising various aspects of McDonald's business practices, including labour conditions, animal welfare, and the nutritional content of their food. McDonald's responded by suing the activists for libel in 1990.

The case attracted widespread attention and led to a protracted legal battle. Steel and Morris, who were initially unrepresented and faced legal challenges, chose to represent themselves for most of the trial due to financial constraints. The trial began in the High Court of England and Wales, lasting for several years, making it one of the longest-running cases in English legal history.

In 1997, after a 314-day trial, the judge ruled that McDonald's had been libelled on some points but not on others. The judge found that McDonald's marketing and advertising practices had been deceptive and that the company had exploited children's vulnerability by using advertising to encourage them to eat unhealthy food. However, the judge also ruled that some of the allegations made in the leaflets were not proven and amounted to libel.

While the court found that Steel and Morris had not proven all of their allegations against McDonald's, it did find some of the criticisms to be justified. McDonald's was awarded a symbolic £60,000 in damages which was later reduced to £40,000 on appeal to the Court of Appeal, but the previous ruling was not overturned.

After the McLibel trial concluded in the UK, Steel and Morris took their case to the European Court of Human Rights as Steel & Morris v United Kingdom (2005) EMLR 314, alleging that their right to a fair trial and freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated during the McLibel proceedings in the UK.

In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favour of Steel and Morris on several points, finding that the UK had violated their right to a fair trial and freedom of expression. The court determined that the lengthy and complex nature of the trial, as well as the defendants' limited access to legal aid, had created an imbalance in the proceedings. Additionally, the court ruled that the UK had violated the activists' right to freedom of expression, and ordered that the UK government pay Steel and Morris £57,000 in compensation.

While the European Court of Human Rights did not overturn the UK's libel verdict against Steel and Morris, it did find that the legal process had not been fair, and this was seen as a significant victory for the activists. The case also highlighted the importance of ensuring a fair balance between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputations in libel cases. In response, the Defamation Act 2013 was enacted to put a higher bar on libel claims, making it harder for corporations to abuse defamation law.

The McLibel case is often cited as an example of the challenges faced by individuals or small organisations when taking on large corporations in legal battles. The trial drew attention to issues such as corporate responsibility, fast food industry practices, and the right to a fair trial. It also highlighted the importance of free speech and the ability of activists to criticise multinational corporations, even if their statements are not entirely accurate.

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