An Insight into Libel Cases
Friday, 4 June 2021
Everyone has heard of the ongoing litigation between Johnny Depp and the Sun Newspaper.
But what is a libel case?
Libel is the written or broadcasted form of defamation. This can be distinguished between slander which is the oral form of defamation. Defamation is a statement which can be by oral or written communication of a false statement about another that unjustly harms their reputation.
English law allows for libel actions to be bought to the High Court for any published statements which are alleged to defame a named or identifiable individual.
Is defamation a crime?
In the UK, defamation is a civil action and if proven a judge can award damages to the Claimant. Therefore, defamation is a claim in tort. Defamation is not a criminal offence. Criminal defamation was abolished in the UK in January 2010 when the Coroners and Justice Act came into force.
McDonalds Corporation V Steel & Morris 
The longest running libel case in British history is a case involving McDonalds and two environmental activists. The case itself only lasted two and a half years in the courts however the matter itself lasted over ten years.
A leaflet entitled “What’s wrong with McDonalds? Everything they don’t want you to know” began to circulate in the UK from 1968 due to a campaign ran by Greenpeace London. The leaflet accused McDonalds of being responsible for Third World starvation and exploiting children as well as other things.
McDonalds then brought a case against the five individuals who were responsible for producing the leaflet. Three of the individuals apologised however Morris and Steel refused to do so and denied that they were involved.
The matter was only heard in court by a judge; no jury was present. The judge rejected the claims in the leaflet and ruled that the two had libelled McDonalds Morris and Steel were ordered to pay damages to McDonalds. No money was ever paid to McDonalds and the two were not pursued by the corporation for payment.
In 2004, the two brought a case against the UK government at the European Court of Human Rights as it was claimed their lack of legal aid breached their rights under Article 5 of the ECHR. It was ruled that the two had been denied a fair trial.