McDonald's libel case could be longest in history

Frances Gibb

The Times, March 3, 1995

A HIGH Court action brought by McDonald's against two environmentalists is likely to become the longest libel case in history. After nearly 100 days and £500,000, only 40 of the 180 witnesses expected to be called have given evidence. The trial, dubbed McLibel, is already expected to run for the rest of the year.

The case before Mr Justice Bell has settled into a familiar routine. The odd member of the public wanders in and out, but for the most part, the players are left to get on with it. McDonald's, the world's biggest fast-food chain, is suing over a six-page leaflet distributed by London Greenpeace, a small, independent pressure group that has waged a campaign against it since 1985.

On one side of the court are some of the country's most expensive lawyers, including Richard Rampton, QC, who is acting for McDonald's. On the other sit two unpaid denim-clad supporters of London Greenpeace, Jane Steel and Dave Morris, who are conducting their own defence.

There is no jury after Mr Justice Bell ruled that it be disbanded. McDonald's had argued that central issues were too complex and scientific for a jury to follow. Ms Steel and Mr Morris went to the Court of Appeal without success.

The trial began last June when McDonald's, which has annual sales of more than $24 billion, decided to sue over a "factsheet" entitled: What's wrong with McDonalds? Everything They Don't Want You to Know.

This sheet contained allegations ranging from the way animals were reared and slaughtered to the impact the chain had on the environment and workers' conditions.

The pace is slow, even by the standards of the law. Witnesses, about a third of whom have to travel from abroad, are called to speak on each and every one of these topics in court. Some have spent four days in the witness box.

This week Jane Steel was quietly cross-examining Gomez Gonzales, international meat purchasing manager for McDonald's, on the details of animal slaughter and hygiene standards. Mr Justice Bell intervenes from time to time to clarify a question or answer; but, otherwise, the two environmental activists go methodically through a lengthy list of prepared questions.

Minutes earlier there was discussion over whether newspaper reports were admissible as evidence. Then the defendants pointed out that they had some difficulty obtaining documents they needed from the company.

Dan Mills, manager for the McLibel Support Campaign, said: "We do have some lawyers who give informal advice, but not on a day-to-day basis just when a specific legal question arises. They are really doing all the day-to-day work themselves.

"They have to get to grips with all the documents and so on. But I think they have really been a match for the lawyers on the other side."

Costs, which could reach several million pounds, might have been even higher had a jury been taken laboriously through every point, lawyers say. "As it is , the judge can grasp things quickly and read all the papers ahead," said one.

The stacks of files on each side of the court would also have had to be copied for each juror, the cost of which would have fallen on McDonald's. The company is already paying for the daily computer transcripts of proceedings for both sides, because the London Greenpeace supporters lack funds.

But the absence of a jury to decide the central libel issue is of concern to Mr Mills. He said: "We may well take this point up with the European Court of Human Rights. The whole test should be what a reasonable man might think."

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