Category Archives: Regulatory

Can several wrongs make a right? Gallaher v CMA in the Court of Appeal

When a public body makes a mistake in its treatment of one person, can fairness require it to treat other people in the same way – even if that means amplifying the effects of the mistake?

According to the Court of Appeal in the latest instalment of the tobacco litigation, the answer is yes.  The history of the case is well-known.  The Office of Fair Trading’s decision, that various manufacturers and retailers had committed an infringement in the setting of tobacco prices, collapsed on appeal to the CAT in 2011.  Gallaher and Somerfield, who had entered into early resolution agreements (“ERAs”) with the OFT and therefore decided not to appeal the infringement decision, then sought to appeal out of time.  The Court of Appeal rejected their attempt in 2014, emphasising the importance of finality and legal certainty (see my blog here).

Undeterred, Gallaher and Somerfield pressed on with a different aspect of their case.  They had discovered that another company, TM Retail, had been assured by the OFT when it entered into its ERA in 2008 that, in the event that any other party succeeded on appeal, TM Retail would have the benefit of that appeal.  The OFT’s assurance to TM Retail was based on a mistaken view of the law, since a successful appeal by one addressee of a decision does not normally let non-appellants off the hook.  However, following the successful CAT appeal in 2011, the OFT decided to honour its assurance to TM Retail.  TM Retail’s penalty was repaid (although for reasons which need not detain us the OFT has refrained from calling it a ‘repayment’).  But the OFT also decided that, given that it had not given any similar assurance to Gallaher or Somerfield, it would not repay their penalties.

Gallaher and Somerfield challenged the OFT’s decision on fairness grounds.  The Court of Appeal has now held that the OFT, now the Competition and Markets Authority, is obliged by principles of fairness to treat Gallaher and Somerfield in the same way as it treated TM Retail.  That will mean repaying their penalties, at a cost of something north of £50 million.

The Court of Appeal’s decision recognises that the requirements of fairness will depend on all the circumstances of the case.  The decision is therefore based very heavily on the particular facts of this case.  Of particular importance was the fact that all ERA parties were told that they would be treated equally.  They therefore had a strong expectation of equal treatment.

Nonetheless, the case raises some important questions.

Firstly: what is the significance of detrimental reliance in an equal treatment case?  In cases concerning legitimate expectations, itself a branch of the law of fairness, it is generally the case that a party will not succeed unless he shows that he has suffered some detriment in reliance on the expectation in question.

In this case, Gallaher and Somerfield could not say that the OFT’s assurance to TM Retail was what made them decide not to appeal against the infringement decision.  They didn’t know about the assurance when they chose not to appeal.  The Court of Appeal answers this point by remarking at [44] that:

“the only reason why the appellants could not have claimed that they relied on assurances of the type given to TM Retail was because such assurances had not been given to them …”

But the question is surely not whether Gallaher and Somerfield could “claim” to have relied on assurances: it is whether or not they did in fact rely on such assurances.  They did not.  The absence of such a factor must be relevant to an assessment of what is fair in all the circumstances.

Secondly: what is the significance of the fact that assuring equal treatment will end up costing the public purse a huge amount of money?

The Court does not go into this question in any detail.  It rejects, as a statement of general principle, the contention endorsed by the High Court that a mistake should not be replicated where public funds are concerned.  Instead all depends on the circumstances.  But the Court’s discussion of the circumstances does not consider the significance of the impact on the public purse.

Of course, the point cuts both ways because the heavy impact on the public purse if the penalties are repaid is the mirror-image of the impact of the unequal treatment on Gallaher and Somerfield if the penalties are not repaid.  There is, however, an important question of principle as to how to balance the desirability of ensuring equal treatment, on the one hand, against the unattractiveness of requiring public bodies to magnify their errors at great expense, on the other.  The Court of Appeal explains in detail why the former consideration should weigh heavily in favour of repayment, but it remains unclear whether, or in what circumstances, such factors may be counter-balanced by public expense considerations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Penalties, Procedure, Regulatory

Appealing energy price controls: guidance for beginners from the CMA

The CMA recently published its final determinations in two appeals brought by British Gas and Northern Powergrid against Ofgem’s electricity price controls for the next 8 years (decisions here and here). The appeals were the first under section 11C of the Electricity Act 1989 and the CMA’s decisions will therefore be the first port of call for any practitioners considering appeals against not only price controls but also any modifications made by Ofgem to electricity distributors’ licences.

British Gas, a supplier, broadly appealed on the basis that Ofgem’s price control allowances were too generous to distributors by around £1.4bn. British Gas won a partial victory on only one of the six grounds of appeal it advanced. On this ground, the CMA found that Ofgem’s recalibration of one of its incentive mechanisms (the information quality incentive) had been, on the facts, excessive, but agreed with Ofgem that it had in principle been right to recalibrate.

Northern Powergrid, a distributor, conversely appealed on the basis that the allowances were not generous enough. The CMA found for Northern Powergrid on only one of the three grounds it advanced, holding that the savings that Ofgem anticipated distributors would make through the advent of smart technology were probably too great and, in any event, premised on an unsafe methodology. Accordingly, the CMA upped Northern Powergrid’s allowances by around £11m.

Prospective appellants will find some crumbs of comfort in the CMA’s decisions, but perhaps more to discourage them.

On the plus side, the CMA stated that the standard of review to be applied to Ofgem in such appeals was more intense than the judicial review standard; the CMA was required to look at the merits of the decision under appeal and determine whether it was wrong on one of the grounds prescribed by section 11E of the Electricity Act 1989. The CMA saw its function as that of an expert appellate body. There is a clear analogy (which the CMA expressly recognised) with the role of the CAT when considering telecoms appeals brought under section 192 of the Communications Act 2003.

Moreover, the CMA was unpersuaded by arguments that it should be slow in principle to alter a price control decision because such a decision is taken “in the round” and it was impermissible for appellants to “cherry-pick” individual errors in an appeal. While the CMA recognised in principle that altering one part of the price control could have knock-on effects for other parts, it saw nothing in the appeals before it to prevent it from adjusting the price control, if necessary.

At least three aspects of the CMA’s decision will dishearten future appellants, however. First, the CMA placed clear limits on the extent to which it would interfere with Ofgem’s decision. It stressed that (like the CAT when considering telecoms appeals) it would not substitute its views for Ofgem’s simply because it would have taken a different approach; rather, Ofgem’s decision had to be wrong. Moreover, the CMA rejected the submissions of one of the intervenors, Scottish and Southern Energy, that it was required to conduct a re-hearing and, if necessary, decide matters afresh. Consistently with the Supreme Court’s judgment in BT v Telefonica O2 UK [2014] UKSC 42, it stated that it was not a “fully equipped duplicate regulatory body waiting in the wings” – rather, it should confine its inquiry to the grounds advanced.

Second, the CMA did not appear to set much store by procedural grounds of appeal. British Gas made much of its point that Ofgem’s decision-making process had not been transparent enough to enable effective consultation. Perhaps most conspicuously, Ofgem had at the hearing of the appeals advanced justifications for one element of the price control (concerning transitional arrangements for a change in asset life policy), which had never been put before the parties. To an extent, the CMA agreed, and wrapped Ofgem’s knuckles for not giving consultees enough information. However, it refused to allow the appeal on that basis, considering that any failures in process were not enough to undermine the decision in question. The lesson for practitioners is not to rely on allegations of procedural unfairness unless these are backed up by substantive criticisms.

Third, the success rate of the appellants was low. Overall, it was hard to persuade the CMA that Ofgem had got it wrong. In the British Gas appeal, Ofgem emerged as the clear winner. And even though Northern Powergrid had some measure of success, the CMA sweetened the pill for Ofgem by making no order as to inter partes costs, thereby shielding the regulator from paying any of Northern Powergrid’s substantially higher bill.

Costs notwithstanding, the financial implications of the price controls for both distributors and suppliers are, of course, enormous. It remains to be seen whether any will take the next step of attempting a judicial review of the CMA’s decision.

Leave a comment

Filed under Procedure, Regulatory