Steel and Morris:Every lawyer's nightmare

Helen Steel and Dave Morris

When London Greenpeace activists Helen Steel and Dave Morris were accused of libelling restaurant chain McDonald’s, no one dreamt it would lead to the longest trial in English legal history. Shaun Pye meets the McLibel defence as the duo prepare to enter the Court of Appeal.

Observing a recent directions hearing in the appeal of Steel & Morris v McDonald’s transported me back to school and missing homework.

Helen Steel is explaining to Lord Justices Pill and May why the court has not received any of her skeleton arguments. Her computer has broken down and has been sent to Essex to be fixed. There is a delay because of problems with payment, as neither Steel, nor anyone she knows, possesses a credit card.

“What about back-up files?” asks Judge May.

“We did have back-up files, but a lot of the most recent work was lost when the computer broke,” says Steel.

“This is highly unsatisfactory – you’ve had 15 months to prepare the skeleton argument,” says Judge Pill.

“We have been meaning to talk to you about that,” says Dave Morris, Steel’s co-defendant. “As litigants in person we feel it is unreasonable that we are expected to produce what could amount to 200,000 pages of written submission.”

He produces the legal equivalent of a note from his mum – a practice direction from Lord Woolf, which states that litigants in person should not be compelled to provide written skeleton arguments because it places an undue burden upon them.

“But the appeal is set to start on 12 January,” says Judge May. “Three judges have set aside the whole of December to prepare. When are we going to receive the skeleton argument?”

“You can have bits of it as we produce it if you like,” says Morris.

And so it continues.

The hearing takes two hours. McDonald’s counsel, Richard Rampton QC, reported to be on u2,000 per day, hardly says a word. One of his few contributions is to remark that the appellants really should have sorted this out months ago.

While Steel and Morris complain of “obnoxious lawyers huffing and puffing and sneering at us”, the legal establishment is clearly equally irritated by Steel and Morris.

Steel and Morris say they have never used the address “My Lord” and during a hearing called one of McDonald’s solicitors “Robert”, prompting Richard Rampton to exclaim: “They’ll be calling me Dickie next.”

When McDonald’s sued five activists from London Greenpeace for libel in 1990, an early victory was expected. Three promptly apologised in court. Steel and Morris went on to trial, with Rampton predicting a three to four-week case.

It became known as the McLibel trial, the longest trial in English legal history, lasting 314 days.

Although McDonald’s won the case, the trial was labelled the biggest PR disaster ever.

In his judgment, Justice Bell agreed with Steel and Morris about the low nutritional value of McDonald’s food, that McDonald’s paid low wages and that it exploited children in its advertising.

Indeed, in the appeal Steel and Morris will argue that they proved so much of their case that McDonald’s was left with little reputation to sully.

Steel says that initially judges and lawyers spoke about them, not to them. She recalls one early hearing when, as litigants in person, they were made to sit in the well of the court, on a different row from McDonald’s counsel. “We were really low down and couldn’t see or hear what was going on. I stood up to point this out and the judge screamed at me to sit down.”

Nobody ignores them anymore. They taught themselves law and legal tactics as they went along, with a little help from left-leaning lawyers, most notably at Doughty Street chambers.

Steel was recently in Doughty Street to use the photocopier and browsed through The Times law reports lying on a table. It was here that she noticed Lord Woolf’s practice direction on skeleton arguments. A rather ad-hoc legal training, but effective.

Steel says their key tactic during the trial was to cross-examine McDonald’s witnesses at great – perhaps excessive – length, usually for about four or five days. Morris and Steel’s closing speech was similarly loquacious – 27 days, as compared to Rampton’s three. It may not have impressed the court but certainly grabbed the attention of the greater public.

The legal establishment is no doubt worried that – broken computers or otherwise – the appeal, scheduled to last three weeks, will also become the longest in English history. However, if the written submissions are not presented, the appeal may be struck out.

Steel and Morris seem remarkably unconcerned after the hearing. True to their popular image, we meet in an “alternative” cafe – Steel is eating a large bowl of chopped up beetroot, carrot and assorted root vegetables.

“They simply don’t understand what it is like for us,” she says. For example, the paperwork is partly hampered because many key documents are in a friend’s attic. There is no room in her flat to store them. “They [the judges and Rampton] all live in big houses. They can’t comprehend having no space.”

Steel, who works part-time as a barmaid in the West End, also says Rampton and the bench are not troubled by the daily chores of “cleaning, shopping and washing up”.

Morris, a former dustman who used trains on the Piccadilly line as his office during the original trial, is bringing up his eight-year-old son Charlie on his own, which makes considerable demands on his time.

The original trial was delayed for three days when Charlie broke his leg. McDonald’s offered to pay for a full-time child minder but Morris declined.

Both defendants bridle at implications from lawyers that they are “resistant to hard work”, though Morris’s purported commitment to preparing the written submissions is slightly undermined when he gets up and says he’s off swimming. And he is taking Charlie off for a three-and-a-half day break over the weekend – his first holiday in ages.

One is left with the feeling that Steel and Morris are every lawyer’s nightmare opponents. They have an unlimited capacity to continue litigation, yet no money. They seem unconcerned about winning or losing – it’s the taking part and subsequent publicity that counts. They are regarded as technically dreadful lawyers, yet they are unquestionably successful in pursuing their cause through the law.

The case arose when, in 1990, 50 leaflets attacking McDonald’s were distributed by London Greenpeace. Thanks to the court case, four million, in 26 different languages, have now been handed out worldwide.

What started as a spat with McDonald’s is set to take on national significance.

Part of Steel and Morris’s appeal is an attack on the ability of multinationals to sue individuals for libel. A case is being prepared for the European Court of Human Rights to “overturn the UK’s oppressive and unfair libel laws”. An action has also been launched against the Metropolitan Police over allegations that information about the pair was passed by officers to McDonald’s.

Whatever happens in January, McLibel is far from over.