UK Govt brought to task over libel laws

Submissions by Finers Stephens Innocent and Doughty Street barristers to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg have led to the UK Government being asked to justify its libel laws

The step means that there will be a public examination by Foreign Office lawyers and the Treasury Solicitor over whether the laws are on a par with international human rights.

The issue arose during proceedings over whether the ‘McLibel’ trial, in which McDonald’s successfully sued two environmentalists in 1997, was unfair because the defendants were refused legal aid. The freedom of speech issue was also raised.

The ECHR has decided that it can answer these questions only after it has received a response from the UK.

Mark Stephens, the Finers partner working on the case, said: “This will force the British Government to measure British libel laws against international standards at a time when Britain is seen as the libel capital of the world.”

Finers’ 200-page submission includes the reference to a recent decision by the Maryland Court not to enforce a UK libel judgment after it found 14 grounds for UK libel laws being incompatible with the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

The UK will have to justify its law relating to the burden of proof falling on the defendant in libel cases and the extent to which people have the right to talk freely about public corporations that generate strong feelings.

Ironically, although the McLibel defendants faced a massive legal team during the substantive trial without legal aid, lawyers working on the current action are being publicly funded.