Two environmentalists fighting the longest libel trial in British legal history suffered a setback today when a judge ruled that they had no right to receive free daily transcripts of the proceedings.
Londoners Dave Morris, 41, and Helen Steel, 29, were told by Mr Justice Bell that they would have to take their own notes in their battle to defend themselves against the McDonald's hamburger empire. The world's most famous fast-food chain - now credited with having its "golden arches" logo recognised by more people across the globe than the Christian cross - is suing them over a leaflet they distributed, accusing McDonald's of poisoning its customers, exploiting Third World countries and employing cheap labour.
Today, the 159th day of a hearing which is receiving worldwide publicity, the judge ruled he could not order McDonald's to go on paying the bill for copies of the transcript - and neither could he order the money to come out of public funds. The judge refused leave to appeal, but Ms Steel said later they would consider applying directly to the Court of Appeal against today's ruling. She said: "Whatever the outcome, we are determined to see it through to the end, whatever the odds stacked against us."
Mr Morris and Ms Steel, fighting their case in person, argued that the already gross inequalities and unfairness of the case would become so marked if transcripts were not provided that a fair trial would be impossible. Problems set in almost immediately after the ruling. Ms Steel, who said the transripts were too expensive to buy on a daily basis, began to write down the evidence of the latest witness and soon complained that she could not complete her note before the next question was asked. The judge urged her just "to get the essence" of what was being said.
Time estimates for the marathon hearing - the Wall Street Journal said in a front-page article this week that it made "the OJ Simpson murder trial look like a quick takeout" - are now being hastily revised. Members of the " McLibel" support campaign say the action, now 13 months old, could run well past its estimated finishing date between January and March next year because the proceedings will be slowed by laborious note-taking. The judge himself was less pessimistic, pointing out that the court was now about two thirds of the way through the oral evidence, and the defendants would still have the use of Case View computer screens in court to help them catch up with their note taking.
McDonald's had made copies of the transcripts available to the pair since the start of the action without charge, but withdrew the facility after accusing Mr Morris and Ms Steel and their supporters of misquoting passages to boost their press campaign around the world. The pair had refused to give an undertaking that they would only use transcripts for the conduct of their case and said McDonald's were seeking to suppress information coming out of the hearing. The judge said the undertakings would not prevent anyone from expressing their views and the public and press would still have access to the court.
Meanwhile the "McLibel Two" are waiting for an answer from the Lord Chancellor to their request that transcript costs be paid from central funds.