Author Archives: Tristan Jones

About Tristan Jones

Barrister at Blackstone Chambers.

Asset acquisitions and mergers: Eurotunnel in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Eurotunnel II ([2015] UKHL 75) brings some much-needed clarity to what was becoming a rather opaque corner of the UK merger regime. It also contains statements of general principle which are bound to make it one of the most frequently-cited merger cases.

The case concerns the circumstances in which an asset acquisition may constitute a merger. SeaFrance, a cross-channel ferry operator, had gone into liquidation and could not be sold as a going concern. Eurotunnel bought three ferries and various other assets. The OFT (now the CMA) investigated.

In deciding whether the acquisition was a merger, the essential question under the Enterprise Act was whether Eurotunnel had acquired “the activities, or part of the activities” of SeaFrance.

I complained in one of my earlier blogs about how the procedural history of the case was causing problems. The parties had apparently agreed that the underlying question of law had been decided by the Competition Appeal Tribunal in the first Eurotunnel case, Eurotunnel I [2013] CAT 30, and that the only issue arising in Eurotunnel II was a rationality challenge to the CMA’s decision. The Court of Appeal accepted the limited scope of the challenge but could not resist suggesting that Eurotunnel I might have been wrongly decided.

Fortunately (and not surprisingly), the Supreme Court did not limit itself to the rationality challenge. It addressed the underlying question of law head-on, endorsing the CAT’s approach in Eurotunnel I.

In deciding whether an asset acquisition is a merger, Lord Sumption held (with the agreement of the rest of the Court), it is necessary to ask whether the acquiring entity has obtained more than it would have obtained by going out into the market and purchasing ‘bare assets’. If so, one must go on to ask whether the ‘extra’ which it has obtained is attributable to the fact that the assets were previously employed in combination in the target’s activities (para 39). Or:

“Put crudely, it depends on whether at the time of the acquisition one can still say that economically the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” (para 40)

The word “economically” should be emphasised. The main reason why Lord Sumption adopted this expansive approach to the question of whether an asset acquisition is a merger was because of his concern to give effect to the purpose of the legislation. See in particular para 31, which contains the first statement of general principle that is bound to be relied on in later cases:

“The first point to be made is that in applying a scheme of economic regulation of this kind, the Authority is necessarily concerned with the economic substance of relevant transactions and not just with their legal form.”

Seen in this light, the fact that the target has ceased its operations will be a relevant factor in deciding whether there is a merger, but it will not necessarily be decisive.

As to the rationality challenge, the Supreme Court held that the CMA’s decision was rational. It also took the opportunity to emphasise – in the second passage likely to become familiar to competition lawyers – the respect which should be paid to the CMA’s expert judgment in merger cases (see para 44):

“This court has recently emphasised the caution which is required before an appellate court can be justified in overturning the economic judgments of an expert tribunal such as the Authority and the CAT: British Telecommunications Plc v Telefónica and others [2014] UKSC 42; [2014] Bus LR 765; [2014] 4 All ER 907 at paras 46, 51. This is a particularly important consideration in merger cases, where even with expedited hearings successive appeals are a source of additional uncertainty and delay which is liable to unsettle markets and damage the prospects of the businesses involved. Concepts such as the economic continuity between the businesses carried on by successive firms call for difficult and complex evaluations of a wide range of factors. They are particularly sensitive to the relative weight which the tribunal of fact attaches to them. Such questions cannot usually be reduced to simple points of principle capable of analysis in purely legal or formal terms.”

There is bound to be further debate about the precise point at which the sale of assets risks becoming the sale of part of a business’s activities, bringing the transaction within the Enterprise Act. However, that debate will now take place within the much clearer boundaries established by the Supreme Court.

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Standalone claims in the CAT: bypassing the transitional rules

We have written before about the problems inherent in the transitional provisions of the new Consumer Rights Act 2015 (see Tom de la Mare QC’s blog here). A recent decision from Mr Justice Barling in the Mastercard litigation places a (small) sticking plaster over some of the difficulties.

One problem is that the transitional provisions appear to severely limit claimants’ ability to bring stand-alone claims in the Competition Appeal Tribunal (“CAT”) – in theory you can bring such claims, but you may face much less favourable limitation rules than you would have faced had you started in the High Court.  It is difficult to see this as anything other than a drafting error, since part of the purpose of the new statutory regime was to do away with the oddity of having a specialist competition tribunal unable to hear such claims.

Barling J has found a partial solution to this problem. In Sainsbury Supermarkets Ltd v MasterCard Incorporated [2015] EWHC 3472 (Ch) (see here), he decided that Sainsbury’s standalone claim, issued in the High Court, could be transferred to the CAT – and that, importantly, such a transfer would preserve the limitation position in the High Court.

The Judge held that it did not matter whether or not the claim could have been started in the CAT (and he did not decide that particular issue). What mattered was that it could be transferred there.

The ability to transfer standalone claims to the CAT has obvious advantages for those cases which would benefit from the CAT’s economic and industry expertise. It is somewhat clunky for claimants to have to issue in the High Court (and incur fees there) only to then transfer to the CAT, but it is better than nothing.

It also means that claimants who wish to take advantage of the different limitation provisions in the High Court (in general, better for standalone claims) and in the CAT (in general, better for follow-on) now have the option of starting claims in both jurisdictions and then seeking to consolidate them in the CAT.

Of course, Barling J’s decision does nothing to fix the other problems highlighted in Tom’s blog. Most obviously, it does nothing for standalone class actions, which cannot be started in the High Court and still face the usual problems in the CAT. It is, however, a helpful ‘workaround’ which will go some way towards mitigating the problems caused by the transitional arrangements.

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Asset acquisitions revisited

Earlier this year, I suggested that the law on when an asset acquisition might amount to a merger was somewhat opaque. The Court of Appeal’s decision in Eurotunnel II [2015] EWCA Civ 487 has brought some additional clarity, although the messy procedural history of that case has caused its own problems.

A quick re-cap on the background. Cross-channel ferry company SeaFrance went into liquidation in 2011. It could not be sold as a going concern, and there was instead an asset sale. Eurotunnel bought three ferries and various other assets.

The OFT (now the CMA) decided to investigate whether the acquisition was a merger. The basic question under the Enterprise Act was whether Eurotunnel had acquired “the activities, or part of the activities” of SeaFrance.

At the risk of stating the obvious, an asset is not an activity. However, there were some features of the asset sale – including the fact that the vessels were maintained ready to sail at short notice, and that a deal had been done to incentivize the re-recruitment of SeaFrance’s staff by any new owner – which the OFT considered meant that the relevant “activities” had been acquired. Continue reading

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Settling cartel damages actions: contribution defendants beware

Anyone who has ever tried to settle a cartel damages case will know that the law relating to settlements is fraught with difficulty. The recent judgment of the High Court in IMI Plc v Delta Ltd [2015] EWHC 1676 (Ch) highlights some of the problems. Continue reading

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Recovering penalties from directors and employees: Safeway revisited

Can a company which has been fined for anticompetitive conduct seek to recover the fine from the directors and employees responsible by suing them for damages?

The question is moot in light of last week’s Supreme Court judgment in Jetivia SA and another v Bilta Ltd (in liquidation) and others [2015] UKSC 23, which casts some doubt on the Court of Appeal’s decision on this issue in Safeway Stores Ltd v Twigger [2010] EWCA Civ 1472. Continue reading

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Eurotunnel: when buying assets is a merger

When is an asset acquisition a merger? As the Eurotunnel litigation shows, the answer is not clear-cut.

The background is the 2011 liquidation of the cross-channel ferry company SeaFrance. It could not be sold as a going concern, so instead there was an asset sale. Eurotunnel bought three ferries and various other assets including the SeaFrance logos, brand and trade name, computer software, websites and domain names, and IT systems. Continue reading

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The costs of intervening

There is an interesting little point on costs buried away in last week’s decision in the “Ethernet” disputes in the Competition Appeal Tribunal (see BT plc v Cable & Wireless Worldwide Plc and others [2014] CAT 20).

Parties which intervene in CAT proceedings generally know that they are unlikely to recover their costs, even if they intervene in support of the party which is ultimately successful. There are, however, various exceptions to that principle – – and, indeed, in the Ethernet case itself some of the intervenors recovered some of their costs from the unsuccessful party. Continue reading

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Filed under Procedure, Telecoms