TWO unemployed environmental campaigners being sued for libel by the McDonald's fast food chain had their plea for a jury trial unanimously rejected by the Court of Appeal yesterday.
Lord Justice Neill, sitting with Lords Justices Steyn and Peter Gibson, told Dave Morris and Helen Steel that the scientific issues would make it impossible for the case to be tried satisfactorily by a jury. The pair, dubbed the McLibel Two, hope to appeal to the House of Lords.
In an important ruling for newspapers and other libel defendants, the court allowed them to present evidence on McDonald's alleged destruction of the environment and attitudes to trade unions, although they had no "clear and sufficient evidence" yet to back up their case.
McDonald's is suing Mr Morris, aged 39, and Ms Steel, aged 28, for distributing a leaflet accusing the chain of exploiting workers, animals and the environment and promoting unhealthy food. The two are members of London Greenpeace -unrelated to the environmental group International Greenpeace - which has been running a campaign against the company since 1985.
McDonald's had argued that there was too little evidence in statements by Ms Steel and Mr Morris's witnesses to support their claims about the company's use of former rainforest land and employment practices. Mr Justice Bell struck out those parts of their written pleadings last November, which would have prevented them raising them at the trial to support their defences of justification -that their statements were true - and fair comment.
Lord Justice Neill said: "The defences of justification and fair comment form part of the framework by which free speech is protected."
He said a plea of justification should be allowed to go ahead if the defendant had reasonable evidence to support it, or reasonable grounds for supposing that enough evidence to prove the allegations would be available at the trial. Only if passages in the defence were "incurably bad" because there was no evidence to support them should they be struck out.
Mr Morris called the judges' decision to deny a jury trial "outrageous". He added: "McDonald's view prevailed that juries would not be able to understand arguments over the links between diet and health, which we think is insulting to the public."
Lord Justice Neill said his "initial reaction" was that the case should be heard by a jury. It raised issues of general importance which were of concern to the public and related to the activities of a multi-national corporation. But he was "driven to the conclusion" that the issues about the alleged health hazards of McDonald's food required a careful and detailed analysis of the scientific evidence and a reasoned judgment about the alleged dangers to health, which a jury could not give.