Two environmental campaigners sued by McDonald's for libel have launched a battle against the UK government in the European Court of Human Rights.
The pair have taken the case to the European Court of Human Rights
In 1997, Helen Steel, 39, and David Morris, 50, of Tottenham, north London, were ordered to pay £40,000 over a leaflet McDonald's said was "damaging".
The pair's lawyer, Keir Starmer QC, has argued it is unfair there is no legal aid for libel cases under English law.
The government said the pair must be subject to the same laws as everybody.
The verdict of the human rights judges is expected in late 2004 or early 2005.
The case in Strasbourg lasted less than a morning, in contrast with the earlier action, which began in 1994 and took a total of 314 days - becoming the longest court case in English legal history.
Mr Starmer told the court that when ordinary people confronted multi-nationals there was a "stark inequality of arms".
He said: "This case is about the right of two people without power or wealth to engage in a public campaign on matters of public interest and importance."
McDonald's brought in the most expensive lawyers and deployed all the resources of a multi-national, while Ms Steel and Mr Morris struggled to argue their case without legal aid or money to provide the legal expertise they needed, Mr Starmer said.
He said English libel law clearly did not meet the requirements of the Human Rights convention, which guarantees the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of expression.
The pair had handed out leaflets, which they had no hand in writing, entitled: "What's wrong with McDonald's?"
The High Court ruled McDonald's had been libelled but also said there were certain truths in the leaflet.
Mr Starmer also argued the law was weighted against the defendants because, under English law, they had to establish the exact truth of every statement in the leaflet.
This differed from libel law elsewhere where the onus was on the accused to prove the statements were inaccurate.
Mr Starmer said the pair - an unemployed gardener and an unemployed postman - lacked the resources or experience to take on a multi-national.
"For the duration of the trial, all the applicants could hope to do was to keep going," he said.
"The result was that, without legal assistance, the case was under-prepared, unready for trial and was advanced by two inexperienced, untrained and exhausted individuals who were pushed to their physical and mental limits.
"In short, it was patently unfair."
But a government lawyer, Philip Sales, told the human rights judges there was "no basis on which campaigners should be singled out for special treatment" under libel law.
He said the fact the pair had lost the case was not evidence they had been let down by English law.
He argued that the length of the trial demonstrated they had the fullest access to the domestic courts.
"They were given every possible latitude in the presentation of their case," he told the court.
"Indeed, the trial judge went out of this way to a quite extraordinary degree."
The government had to decide how to use limited funding and libel cases had been excluded from legal aid because of their relatively low priority, he said.
He denied the government was in any breach of the Human Rights Convention.
A McDonald's spokeswoman said: "The case taken to the European Court of Human Rights involves the UK government and not McDonald's, and therefore it would be inappropriate for us to comment in depth.
"Although the so-called 'McLibel' case came to court in 1994, the allegations related to practices in the '80s.
"The world has moved on since then and so has McDonald's."