TWO ANIMAL rights campaigners who have been unable to obtain legal aid to defend a libel action brought against them by McDonald's, the fast food chain, have lodged a claim with the European Commission of Human Rights that their human rights are being infringed. In the libel action launched in 1990 and still pending in the High Court in London, McDonald's is suing over alleged defamation contained in a leaflet entitled What's Wrong With McDonald's, which criticised aspects of its business and trading policies. Legal aid is not available in libel cases and Helen Steel, 27, and David Morris, 38, from north London, say they cannot afford to defend themselves in the action. In their claim against the Government, lodged on their behalf in Strasbourg by Liberty, the former National Council for Civil Liberties, they say that unavailability of legal aid in libel cases is a denial of their right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Human Rights Convention. They also claim that their inability to defend themselves properly makes it impossible for them to exercise their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Convention. If their claim before the Commission and the European Court of Human Rights succeeded it would be a serious embarrassment for the Government which is seeking to contain the soaring legal aid budget. It has consistently resisted pressure for legal aid to be extended to libel and slander cases. But both claimants still have to overcome the first hurdle of the Strasbourg machinery of having their claim declared admissible by the Commission. Many cases fail at this stage. Mr John Wadham, the legal officer for Liberty, said "equality of arms" had long been recognised as an "essential prerequisite of justice. Without legal aid it is impossible for individuals to defend themselves against libel actions brought by large corporations with almost unlimited resources."