The applicants, Ms. Steel and Mr. Morris, were accused of libel by McDonald’s. The applicants applied for legal aid but were refused it, because legal aid was not available for defamation proceedings in the United Kingdom. They represented themselves during the trial with some assistance from barristers and pro bono solicitors.
The applicants' complaint was that they were denied a fair trial because of the lack of legal aid.
The Court pointed that also in civil proceedings a litigant must not be denied the opportunity to present his or her case effectively before the court and he or she must be able to enjoy equality of arms with the opposing side. Article 6 (1) leaves to the State a free choice of the means to be used in guaranteeing litigants the above rights. The institution of a legal aid scheme constitutes one of those means but there are others, for example simplifying the applicable procedure.
The question whether the provision of legal aid is necessary for a fair hearing must be determined on the basis of the particular facts and circumstances of each case and will depend, among other things, upon the importance of what is at stake for the applicant in the proceedings, the complexity of the relevant law and procedure and the applicant's capacity to represent him or herself effectively. However, the state may decide to impose certain conditions on grant of legal aid, for example litigant’s financial situation. Also there is no obligation of the state to ensure total equality of arms between the assisted person and the opposing party, as long as each side is afforded a reasonable opportunity to present his or her case under conditions that do not place them at a substantial disadvantage vis-à-vis their adversary.
In the particular case the Court found that the financial consequences could be grave on the applicants if they would have been found liable for defamation, the applicants lacked legal knowledge and the case itself was legally and factually complex. Thus it was ruled by the Court that the denial of legal aid to the applicants deprived them of the opportunity to present their case effectively before the court and contributed to an unacceptable inequality of arms in violation of their right to fair trial.