Tag Archives: applicable law

Applicable law in competition infringements: Deutsche Bahn

The recent judgment of Barling J in Deutsche Bahn AG v MasterCard offers important guidance on determining applicable law in competition actions. Practitioners dealing with competition infringements which stretch back prior to the entry into force of Rome II in 2009 should take note – particularly when dealing with limitation issues, which are governed by the applicable law of the tort. The court held that where the 1995 Act regime applies (broadly, between 1996 and 2009) the applicable law is that of the country where the restriction of competition took place. This begs the question: what law applies if the claimants have not defined the geographical market which is affected along national lines?

Background

This judgment is the latest in the interchange fee saga following the Commission’s infringement decision in 2007. It relates to an action brought on behalf of some 1,300 retailers operating in 18 European countries. The retailers claim that Mastercard infringed European and national competition laws by centrally setting interchange fees payable by acquiring banks (and other rules) which in turn inflated the ‘merchant service charge’ paid by retailers whenever they accept payment by Mastercard credit/debit cards.

The claims span nearly three decades, dating back to 1992. As a stepping-stone to determining limitation issues, the parties asked the court to determine the applicable law and nominated test claims relating to 4 countries (Germany, Italy, Poland and the UK).

The three regimes

The resulting judgment is a helpful ready reckoner on applicable law for those faced with claims of long-running competition infringements. The three regimes can be broadly divided as follows:

  • 11 January 2009 to date: where the “events giving rise to damage” occurred on or after 11 January 2009, Rome II applies (see Article 31). Although what constitutes the relevant ‘event’ for the purposes of drawing this temporal dividing line in competition cases was left unanswered ([26]).
  • 1 May 1996 to 10 January 2009: where the “acts or omissions giving rise to a claim” occurred on or after 1 May 1996, the Private International Law (Miscellaneous) Provisions Act (the “1995 Act”) applies (see section 14). This is concerned with the acts and omissions of the Defendant, irrespective of the date of the resulting damage.
  • 22 May 1992 to 30 April 1996: English common law principles will apply.

The parties were in agreement on the import of Rome II: under Article 6(3) the applicable law is the law of the country “where the market is, or is likely to be, affected”. In the present case, it was agreed that this translated to a test of where the claimant was based at the time of the relevant transaction which attracted the merchant service charge ([22]). However, the application of the 1995 Act was heavily contested.

The 1995 Act: place where the restriction of competition occurred

The general statutory test for applicable law under section 11(1) of the 1995 Act is where “the events constituting the tort or delict in question occur”. Where elements of those events occur in different countries, the test outside of personal injury and property damage cases is where “the most significant event or elements of the events occurred” (section 11(2)).

The Defendants argued that that the place where the most significant event occurred was the place where the merchant was based when they paid the inflated service charge, thereby aligning the test with that under Rome II.

The thrust of the claimants’ argument was that ‘the most significant event’ in each claim was not the Claimants’ payment of an inflated service charge – rather, it was the Defendants’ actions in deciding to adopt the relevant interchange fee. The Claimants argued that those actions took place in Belgium (although this was subject to some dispute).

Mr Justice Barling found that the court must make a ‘value judgment’ about the significance of each of the English law constituents of the tort in question and that judgment should be taken in light of the facts of the particular case ([40]-[41]).

In the present case, he found that the most significant element of the cause of action was the restriction of competition. This, he found, was a factual event which could be geographically pinpointed and was not, as the claimants had argued, merely a legal/economic phenomenon without a country of occurrence. In practical terms, Barling J’s approach pointed to the national law of each of the markets where each claimant operated its retail business ([55]).

Beyond national markets?

Mr Justice Barling’s test of where the restriction of competition occurred seems a neat solution on the facts of the MasterCard case. MasterCard relied heavily upon the way in which the particulars of claim had been pleaded by reference to national markets and national laws (see the court’s discussion at [49] and [54]).

Yet the test may not produce such a neat answer for claims in which the relevant geographical market has not been defined along national lines. Claimants might allege a restriction of the pan-European market or even fail to define the geographical market at all in their pleadings. When faced with the argument that claims may plead restrictions by object rather than effect, the Judge observed that in such cases a restriction of competition is presumed to have occurred “on the relevant market”. Yet this begs the question – what is that relevant market? Can it always be neatly mapped on to a single country?

There is therefore considerable scope for future litigants to argue that ‘where the restriction occurred’ cannot be the ‘one size fits all’ solution in all competition claims reaching back prior to 2009. The seeds for such an argument may well have been sown in Mr Justice Barling’s finding that the significance of the different elements of a tort may differ even as between cases involving the same cause of action (see [118]).

Leave a comment

Filed under Abuse, Agreements, Conflicts

Competition Law claims post-Brexit: the issue of applicable law

Once notification is given by the UK Government of its intention to withdraw from the European Union under Article 50 TFEU, EU law will cease to apply in the UK after the expiry of two years (absent an agreement between all 28 Member States extending the relevant period). What then happens to the UK’s competition law regime, which is closely intertwined with EU law, both substantively and procedurally?

The answer will depend to a large extent on the terms of the Great Repeal Bill. What is clear, however, is that the provisions of Article 101 and 102 TFEU will no longer apply within the territory of the United Kingdom. Those Articles presently have direct effect in the UK legal order. General principles of EU law, including the principle of direct effect, are binding in the UK under Article 6 TEU, read in conjunction with sections 2 and 3 of the European Communities Act 1972. But it seems inevitable that the Great Repeal Bill will remove the direct effect of substantive EU competition law. Moreover, Regulation 1/2003 (the Modernisation Regulation) will no longer be directly applicable in this jurisdiction. But the terms of the Competition Act 1998 (‘CA 1998’) will still apply. The Chapter I prohibition, for example, prohibits cartel conduct producing an actual or potential effect on trade within the United Kingdom. The provisions of the CA 1998 can no doubt continue in force largely unamended, save of course for section 60 CA 1998 with its focus on aligning as far as possible the position adopted by domestic and EU law on parallel issues.

It will be no secret to those reading this blog that competition law claims in the UK have increased in number in recent years. The ‘mystery of the reluctant plaintiff’ finally seemed to have been resolved.[1] Many of these claims have been brought on the basis of Articles 101 TFEU, Article 53 of the EEA Agreement and the Chapter I prohibition contained in section 2 CA 1998. Indeed, some of these claims have also incorporated claims based on the applicable laws of tort in other Member States of the EU. Does the departure of the UK from the EU mean that these claims will no longer be brought? The answer is very likely to be no. There are two principal reasons.

First, there has been no suggestion that claims seeking to enforce accrued rights to damages cannot be brought once the UK leaves the EU. Anyone who is the victim of cartel conduct, for example, will continue to have rights under EU law which confer a right to damages up until the UK’s departure from the EU. The Great Repeal Bill cannot lawfully deprive victims of the benefit of these accrued rights without seriously risking falling foul of Article 1 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights. The English legal system should accordingly continue to recognise the tortious liability of Defendants for damage that occurred while EU law was applicable in this jurisdiction.

Secondly, a distinction needs to be drawn between jurisdiction and applicable law. Once jurisdiction is established against one or more Defendants within this jurisdiction, the question of which claims may be pleaded and proved against them is a question of the applicable law of the tort. At the moment, the applicable law for competition claims for loss arising after 10 January 2009 is determined by the application of the Rome II Regulation[2] (and principally by Article 6(3)). That Regulation will no longer be binding on English courts once we leave the EU. But absent any legislative intervention in the Great Repeal Bill, the default position will then be that the pre-Rome II legislative framework will continue to apply. Section 15A of the Private International Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1995 (‘PILMPA 1995’) suspends the application of that Act when the Rome II Regulation applies. It follows that, when the Rome II Regulation is not applicable (either by virtue of its temporal or geographical scope), then the provisions of PILMPA 1995 remain fully effective.

The 1995 Act abolished the common law requirement of “double-actionability.” So free-standing claims for breach of the competition laws of other Member States – and of Articles 101 and 102 TFEU – can still be advanced in the courts of England and Wales, if the criteria for liability under those laws is met. Where, for example, a claimant sustains loss both in the EU markets and in the UK, there is no reason in principle why a claim for all of its loss cannot be brought in England. Expert evidence would be needed as to what the contents of those laws – including of EU law – are. See section 4(1) of the Civil Evidence Act 1972. But it is common for commercially significant cases to involve the pleading and proof by experts of causes of action based on foreign laws. Sections 11 and 12 of the PILMPA 1995 determine how the applicable law of the relevant tort or torts is to be selected.

One potential issue that arises is whether or not the enforcement of a foreign competition law would fall foul of the prohibition on English courts enforcing foreign, penal laws. Section 14(3)(a)(ii) of the 1995 Act provides that nothing in Part III of that Act “(a) authorises the application of the law of a country outside the forum as the applicable law for determining issues arising in any claim in so far as to do so— . . .(ii) would give effect to such a penal, revenue or other public law as would not otherwise be enforceable under the law of the forum.”

But this provision is highly unlikely to prevent a claim being brought for compensation on the basis of the foreign laws of one or more jurisdictions. A claim for compensation based on a breach of a foreign competition law (or foreign law of tort or delict) is not the enforcement of a penal law. Such claims do not amount to an attempt to enforce a competition law which gives the national competition authorities in those foreign jurisdictions powers to fine cartelists. In Huntington v. Attrill [1893] AC 150, PC, Lord Watson at p. 157-158 stated: “A proceeding, in order to come within the scope of the rule, must be in the nature of a suit in favour of the State whose law has been infringed.” That is not the case where a claimant (who is in any event not likely to be a public body in a foreign state) is claiming a compensatory remedy rather than enforcing a fine or penalty. See United States Securities and Exchange Commission v. Manterfield [2009] EWCA Civ 27; [2010] 1 W.L.R. 172, CA per Waller LJ at [19] to [23].

It follows that if jurisdiction of the English Courts can be established, then there is no insuperable impediment to claimants bringing claims for loss arising from cartels and other anti-competitive conduct in much the same way as they do at present.

[1] The “mystery of the reluctant plaintiff” was a reference by J. Maitland-Walker at a conference in London, 1982, cited in Enric Picañol, Remedies in national law for breach of Articles 85 and 86 of the EEC Treaty – a Review, Legal Issues of European Integration, Deventer No. 2 (1983) 1 at page 2. Comprehensive reasons why there were not more claims under the pre-Modernisation competition regime were provided by John Temple Lang in EEC Competition Actions in Member States’ Courts – Claims for damages, declarations and injunctions for breach of Community Antitrust Law (1983-4) vol. 7 Fordham Intl L.J. 389 at page 407.

[2] Regulation (EC) No 864/2007 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 July 2007 on the law applicable to non-contractual obligations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Brexit, Conflicts