McLibel case
McDonald's Corporation v Steel & Morris [1997] EWHC QB 366, known as "the McLibel case" was an English lawsuit
A lawsuit or "suit in law" is a civil action brought in a court of law in which a plaintiff, a party who claims to have incurred loss as a result of a defendant's actions, demands a legal or equitable remedy. The defendant is required to respond to the plaintiff's complaint...

 filed by McDonald's Corporation
McDonald's Corporation is the world's largest chain of hamburger fast food restaurants, serving around 64 million customers daily in 119 countries. Headquartered in the United States, the company began in 1940 as a barbecue restaurant operated by the eponymous Richard and Maurice McDonald; in 1948...

 against environmental
Environmentalism is a broad philosophy, ideology and social movement regarding concerns for environmental conservation and improvement of the health of the environment, particularly as the measure for this health seeks to incorporate the concerns of non-human elements...

 activists Helen Steel and David Morris (often referred to as "The McLibel Two") over a pamphlet critical of the company. The original case lasted ten years, making it the longest-running libel case in English history.

A feature-length documentary film, McLibel
McLibel (film)
McLibel is a documentary film directed by Franny Armstrong and Ken Loach for Spanner Films about the McLibel case. The film was first completed, as a 52 minute television version, in 1997, after the conclusion of the original McLibel trial...

, was made about the case by Franny Armstrong
Franny Armstrong
Franny Armstrong is a British documentary film director working for her own company, Spanner Films, and a former drummer with indie pop group The Band of Holy Joy...


Although McDonald's won two hearings
Hearing (law)
In law, a hearing is a proceeding before a court or other decision-making body or officer, such as a government agency.A hearing is generally distinguished from a trial in that it is usually shorter and often less formal...

 of the case in English courts, the partial nature of the victory, the David-vs-Goliath nature of the case, and the drawn-out litigation embarrassed the company. McDonald's announced that it did not plan to collect the £40,000 award that it was awarded by the courts.

Following the decision, the European Court of Human Rights
European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is a supra-national court established by the European Convention on Human Rights and hears complaints that a contracting state has violated the human rights enshrined in the Convention and its protocols. Complaints can be brought by individuals or...

 (ECHR) ruled in Steel & Morris v United Kingdom that the pair had been denied a fair trial, in breach of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights
European Convention on Human Rights
The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is an international treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. Drafted in 1950 by the then newly formed Council of Europe, the convention entered into force on 3 September 1953...

 and that their conduct should have been protected by Article 10 of the Convention. The court awarded a judgment of £57,000 against the UK government. McDonald's itself was not involved in, or a party to, this action, as applications to the ECHR are independent cases filed against the relevant state
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

. This judgement, given on 15 February 2005, represented the end of the pair's 20-year battle with McDonald's.


Beginning in 1986, "London Greenpeace
London Greenpeace
London Greenpeace was an Anarchist environmentalist activist collective that existed between 1972 and 2001. They were based in London, and came to international prominence when two of their activists refused to capitulate to McDonald's in the landmark libel case known as "McLibel".-Origins:In 1972...

", a small environmental campaigning group (not to be confused with the larger Greenpeace International
Greenpeace is a non-governmental environmental organization with offices in over forty countries and with an international coordinating body in Amsterdam, The Netherlands...

 organisation, which they declined to join as they saw it being too "centralised and mainstream for their tastes"), distributed a pamphlet
A pamphlet is an unbound booklet . It may consist of a single sheet of paper that is printed on both sides and folded in half, in thirds, or in fourths , or it may consist of a few pages that are folded in half and saddle stapled at the crease to make a simple book...

 entitled What’s wrong with McDonald’s: Everything they don’t want you to know.

This publication made a number of allegations against McDonald's. The leading allegations were that McDonald's:
  • is complicit in Third World starvation;
  • buys from greedy rulers and elites and practices economic imperialism;
  • wastes vast quantities of grain and water;
  • destroys rainforests with poisons and colonial invasions;
  • sells unhealthy, addictive junk food;
  • alters its food with artificial chemistry;
  • exploits children with its advertising;
  • is responsible for torture and murder of animals;
  • poisons customers with contaminated meat;
  • exploits its workers and bans unions;
  • hides its malfeasance.

It was later noted that the reach of the campaign was tiny compared with the level of ensuing controversy. In 1989, McDonald's responded to the publication of the leaflet by engaging private agents to infiltrate London Greenpeace in order to gather evidence. Along with attending meetings, those agents broke into their offices and stole documents. In 1990, McDonald's brought libel
Slander and libel
Defamation—also called calumny, vilification, traducement, slander , and libel —is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government, or nation a negative image...

 proceedings against five London Greenpeace supporters, Paul Gravett, Andrew Clarke and Jonathan O'Farrell, as well as Steel and Morris, for distributing the pamphlet on the streets of London. This case followed past instances in which McDonald's threatened to sue more than fifty organisations for libel, including Channel 4
Channel 4
Channel 4 is a British public-service television broadcaster which began working on 2 November 1982. Although largely commercially self-funded, it is ultimately publicly owned; originally a subsidiary of the Independent Broadcasting Authority , the station is now owned and operated by the Channel...

 television and several major publications. In all such cases, the media outlets settled, and offered apologies for the alleged libel.

Under English law
English defamation law
Modern libel and slander laws, as implemented in many Commonwealth nations as well as in the United States and in the Republic of Ireland, are originally descended from English defamation law...

, the burden of proving (on balance of probability) the literal truth of every disparaging statement is on the defendant. This can be an expensive and time-consuming process. Three of the charged individuals (Gravett, Clarke and O'Farrell) chose to apologise as requested by McDonald's. Steel and Morris, however, chose to defend the case.

The two were denied Legal Aid
Legal aid
Legal aid is the provision of assistance to people otherwise unable to afford legal representation and access to the court system. Legal aid is regarded as central in providing access to justice by ensuring equality before the law, the right to counsel and the right to a fair trial.A number of...

, as was policy for libel cases, despite having very limited income. Thus, they had to represent themselves, though they received significant pro bono
Pro bono
Pro bono publico is a Latin phrase generally used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service. It is common in the legal profession and is increasingly seen in marketing, technology, and strategy consulting firms...

 assistance. Steel and Morris called 180 witnesses, seeking to prove their assertions about food poisoning, unpaid overtime
Overtime is the amount of time someone works beyond normal working hours. Normal hours may be determined in several ways:*by custom ,*by practices of a given trade or profession,*by legislation,...

, misleading claims about how much McDonald's recycled
Recycling is processing used materials into new products to prevent waste of potentially useful materials, reduce the consumption of fresh raw materials, reduce energy usage, reduce air pollution and water pollution by reducing the need for "conventional" waste disposal, and lower greenhouse...

, and "corporate spies sent to infiltrate the ranks of London Greenpeace". McDonald's spent several million pounds, while Steel and Morris spent £30,000; this disparity in funds meant Steel and Morris were not able to call all the witnesses they wanted, especially witnesses from South America who were intended to support their claims about McDonalds' activities in that continent's rain forests.

In its libel allegation, McDonald's asserted that all claims in the pamphlet were false. They found it difficult to support this position despite the indirectness of some of the claims. The case eventually became a media circus
Media circus
Media circus is a colloquial metaphor, or idiom, describing a news event where the media coverage is perceived to be out of proportion to the event being covered, such as the number of reporters at the scene, the amount of news media published or broadcast, and the level of media hype...

. McDonald's executives, including Ray Cesca, took the stand to be questioned by the defendants.

In June 1995, McDonald's offered to settle the case (which "was coming up to its first anniversary in court") by donating a large sum of money to a charity chosen by the two. They further specified that they would drop the case if Steel and Morris agreed to "stop criticising McDonald's". Steel and Morris secretly recorded the meeting; McDonald's said the pair could criticise McDonald's privately to friends but must cease talking to the media or distributing leaflets. Steel and Morris wrote a letter in response saying they would agree to the terms if McDonald's ceased advertising its products and instead only recommended the restaurant privately to friends.

High Court

The case was adjudicated by Hon. Mr Justice Rodger Bell; it was the first libel case he handled. On 19 June 1997, Mr Justice Bell delivered a more than 1,000-page decision largely in favour of McDonald's, summarised by a 45-page paper read in court. Steel and Morris were found liable on several points, although the judge also found that some of the points in the pamphlet were true. McDonald's considered this a legal victory, though it was tempered by the judge's endorsement of some of the allegations in the pamphlet. Specifically, Bell ruled that McDonald's endangered the health
Health is the level of functional or metabolic efficiency of a living being. In humans, it is the general condition of a person's mind, body and spirit, usually meaning to be free from illness, injury or pain...

 of its workers and customers by "misleading advertising", that they "exploit children", that they were "culpably responsible" in the infliction of unnecessary cruelty to animals
Cruelty to animals
Cruelty to animals, also called animal abuse or animal neglect, is the infliction of suffering or harm upon non-human animals, for purposes other than self-defense. More narrowly, it can be harm for specific gain, such as killing animals for food or for their fur, although opinions differ with...

, and that they were "antipathetic" to unionisation
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

 and paid its workers low wages. Furthermore, although the decision awarded £60,000 to the company, McDonald's legal costs were much greater, and the defendants lacked the funds to pay it. Steel and Morris immediately appealed the decision.

In 1998, a documentary film was made about the case, also titled McLibel. This was updated in 2005 after the verdict of the final appeal.

Court of Appeal

In September 1998, the pair sued Scotland Yard
Scotland Yard
Scotland Yard is a metonym for the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service of London, UK. It derives from the location of the original Metropolitan Police headquarters at 4 Whitehall Place, which had a rear entrance on a street called Great Scotland Yard. The Scotland Yard entrance became...

 for disclosing confidential information to investigators hired by McDonalds and received £10,000 and an apology for the alleged disclosure. An appeal began on 12 January 1999, and lasted 23 court days, ending on 26 February. The case was heard in Court 1 of the Court of Appeal in the Royal Courts of Justice
Royal Courts of Justice
The Royal Courts of Justice, commonly called the Law Courts, is the building in London which houses the Court of Appeal of England and Wales and the High Court of Justice of England and Wales...

. The case was adjudicated by Lord Justices Pill & May and Mr Justice Keane. The defendants represented themselves in court, assisted by 1st year law student Kalvin P. Chapman (King's College London
King's College London
King's College London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London. King's has a claim to being the third oldest university in England, having been founded by King George IV and the Duke of Wellington in 1829, and...

). McDonalds were represented by libel lawyer Richard Rampton
Richard Rampton
Richard Rampton QC is a leading British libel lawyer. He has been involved in several high profile cases, with his defence of Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books against David Irving among the most famous. In Irving v. Penguin Books and Lipstadt, he represented them against false accusations of...

, and a junior barrister, Timothy Atkinson, and Ms Pattie Brinley-Codd of Barlow, Lyde & Gilbert. Steel and Morris filed a 63 point appeal. They had requested a time extension, but were denied. The verdict for the appeal was handed down on 31 March, in Court 1 at the Royal Courts of Justice.

The judges ruled that it was fair comment to say that McDonald's employees worldwide 'do badly in terms of pay and conditions' and true 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.' They further stated that this last finding 'must have a serious effect on their trading reputation since it goes to the very business in which they are engaged. In our judgment, it must have a greater impact on the respondents' [McDonald's] reputation than any other of the charges that the trial judge had found to be true'.

The Court of Appeal also stated that it had 'considerable sympathy' with the defendants' submissions that the leaflet meant 'that there is a respectable (not cranky) body of medical opinion which links a junk food diet with a risk of cancer and heart disease', that 'this link was accepted both in literature published by McDonald's themselves and by one or more of McDonald's own experts and in medical publications of high repute', and that therefore 'that should have been an end of this part of the case'. However they ruled against the defendants on the allegation that McDonald's food was a carcinogen
A carcinogen is any substance, radionuclide, or radiation that is an agent directly involved in causing cancer. This may be due to the ability to damage the genome or to the disruption of cellular metabolic processes...


As a result of their further findings against the Corporation, the three Lord Justices reduced Mr Justice Bell's award of £60,000 damages to McDonald's by £20,000. The court ruled against the argument by Steel and Morris that multinational corporations should no longer be able to sue for libel over public interest
Public interest
The public interest refers to the "common well-being" or "general welfare." The public interest is central to policy debates, politics, democracy and the nature of government itself...

 issues; they believed 'that may be seen as an argument of some substance', but ultimately rejected it, on grounds that it was a matter for Parliament. Steel and Morris announced their intention to appeal over these and other points to the House of Lords
House of Lords
The House of Lords is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Like the House of Commons, it meets in the Palace of Westminster....

, and then take the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights
European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is a supra-national court established by the European Convention on Human Rights and hears complaints that a contracting state has violated the human rights enshrined in the Convention and its protocols. Complaints can be brought by individuals or...

 if necessary.

In response to the verdict, David Pannick QC said in The Times
The Times
The Times is a British daily national newspaper, first published in London in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register . The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary since 1981 of News International...

: "The McLibel case has achieved what many lawyers thought impossible: to lower further the reputation of our law in the minds of all right thinking people."

Steel and Morris appealed to the Law Lords
Judicial functions of the House of Lords
The House of Lords, in addition to having a legislative function, historically also had a judicial function. It functioned as a court of first instance for the trials of peers, for impeachment cases, and as a court of last resort within the United Kingdom. In the latter case the House's...

, arguing that their right to legal aid had been unjustly denied. When the Law Lords refused to accept the case, the pair formally retained solicitor
Solicitors are lawyers who traditionally deal with any legal matter including conducting proceedings in courts. In the United Kingdom, a few Australian states and the Republic of Ireland, the legal profession is split between solicitors and barristers , and a lawyer will usually only hold one title...

, Mark Stephens
Mark Stephens (solicitor)
Mark Howard Stephens CBE is a British solicitor specialising in media law, intellectual property rights and human rights with the firm Finers Stephens Innocent...

 and barrister
A barrister is a member of one of the two classes of lawyer found in many common law jurisdictions with split legal professions. Barristers specialise in courtroom advocacy, drafting legal pleadings and giving expert legal opinions...

 (now Director of Public Prosecutions
Director of Public Prosecutions
The Director of Public Prosecutions is the officer charged with the prosecution of criminal offences in several criminal jurisdictions around the world...

 (England and Wales)), Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer, QC, is a barrister in England and Wales. He became the fourteenth Director of Public Prosecutions and the sixth head of the Crown Prosecution Service on 1 November 2008...

 QC to file a case with the European Court of Human Rights
European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is a supra-national court established by the European Convention on Human Rights and hears complaints that a contracting state has violated the human rights enshrined in the Convention and its protocols. Complaints can be brought by individuals or...

 (ECHR), contesting the UK government's policy that legal aid was not available in libel cases, and setting out a highly detailed case for what they believed to be the oppressive and unfair nature of UK libel laws in general, and in their case in particular. In September 2004, this action was heard by the ECHR. Lawyers for Steel and Morris argued that the lack of legal aid had breached the pair's right to freedom of expression and to a fair trial.

European Court of Human Rights

On 15 February 2005, the ECHR ruled that the original case had breached Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights
European Convention on Human Rights
The Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms is an international treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. Drafted in 1950 by the then newly formed Council of Europe, the convention entered into force on 3 September 1953...

 and ordered that the UK government pay Steel and Morris £57,000 in compensation. In their ruling, the ECHR criticised the way in which UK laws had failed to protect the public right to criticise corporations whose business practices affect people's lives and the environment (which violates Article 10); they also ruled that the trial was biased because of the defendants' comparative lack of resources and what they believed were complex and oppressive UK libel laws.


In response to the ECHR's decision, Steel and Morris issued the following press release:

Having largely beaten McDonald's... we have now exposed the notoriously oppressive and unfair UK laws. As a result of the... ruling today, the government may be forced to amend or scrap some of the existing UK laws. We hope that this will result in greater public scrutiny and criticism of powerful organisations whose practices have a detrimental effect on society and the environment. The McLibel campaign has already proved that determined and widespread grass roots protests and defiance can undermine those who try to silence their critics, and also render oppressive laws unworkable. The continually growing opposition to McDonald's and all it stands for is a vindication of all the efforts of those around the world who have been exposing and challenging the corporation's business practices.

The 2005 film quoted McDonald's as offering little comment on the European Court decision other than to point out that it was the Government and not McDonalds who was the losing party and that "times have changed and so has McDonald's." On a website aiming to state its view on issues raised about it, McDonald's stated that the case is in the past and the issues more so, and that both sides in it have moved on - although Morris and Steel did continue related litigation.

See also

  • English tort law
    English tort law
    English tort law concerns civil wrongs, as distinguished from criminal wrongs, in the law of England and Wales. Some wrongs are the concern of the state, and so the police can enforce the law on the wrongdoers in court – in a criminal case...

  • McDonald's legal cases
    McDonald's legal cases
    McDonald's has been involved in a number of lawsuits and other legal cases in the course of the fast food chain's 70-year history. Many of these have involved trademark issues, but McDonald's has also launched a significant number of defamation suits, including "the biggest corporate PR disaster in...

  • Strategic lawsuit against public participation
    Strategic lawsuit against public participation
    A strategic lawsuit against public participation is a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition....

  • Chilling effect
  • Maxime, McDuff & McDo
    Maxime, McDuff & McDo
    Maxime, McDuff & McDo is a 2002 documentary film by Magnus Isacsson that shows the attempt of unionizing a McDonald's restaurant in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.They were successful, but McDonald's quickly shut down the franchise after the union won....

    - a 2002 Quebec documentary film about the unionising of a McDonald's in Montreal. They were successful, but McDonald's quickly shut down the franchise after the union won.
  • Gunns 20
    Gunns Limited is a major forestry enterprise located in Tasmania, Australia. Founded in 1875 by brothers John and Thomas Gunn, it is one of Australia's oldest companies. It has over 900 square kilometres of plantations, mainly eucalyptus trees. It is Tasmania’s largest private land-owner...

     - Gunns Limited v Marr & Ors[11], a current Australian case, filed by Gunns (a major forestry company with main office in Tasmania) in the Supreme Court of Victoria, against 20 individuals and organisations for over 12.2 million dollars.
  • Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants - A 1994 case about a woman who burned herself with hot coffee.

External links

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