Tag Archives: competition appeal tribunal

Retrospective interpretation: DSG v MasterCard

The latest battle over limitation in Competition damages claims was a victory for the claimants – see DSG Retail Ltd v MasterCard Inc [2019] CAT 5.  In some ways it is a surprising decision, because the Competition Appeal Tribunal has decided that when s.47A of the Competition Act was enacted in 2003, certain claims which were time-barred prior to its enactment were revived.  The Tribunal frankly acknowledged that it did not find the matter straightforward, and looking at the rules it is easy to see why.

It used to be the case that competition damages claims could only be brought in the civil courts, where they would be subject to the usual six-year limitation rule (subject to extensions in various circumstances which need not concern us here).  In 2003 a new route was introduced: claimants became entitled bring follow-on claims in the CAT under s.47A, which had its own bespoke limitation regime.  That regime included this provision, which was found in rule 31(4) of the 2003 CAT Rules:

“No claim for damages may be made if, were the claim to be made in proceedings brought before a court, the claimant would be prevented from bringing the proceedings by reason of a limitation period having expired before the commencement of section 47A.”

Rule 31(4) was dropped when the rules were revised in 2015.  The position now is that claimants can still bring s.47A follow-on claims, including for periods pre-2015, but such claims are no longer subject to rule 31(4). The Tribunal had to decide the related questions of what the consequence was of dropping rule 31(4), and what the rule meant in the first place.

The most obvious interpretation of rule 31(4) is that claimants could not bring follow-on claims under s.47A if the claims would have been time-barred in 2003 when s.47A was introduced.  Thus, if an infringement lasted from 1993 to 2003 (and assuming that it was not deliberately concealed), the claimants could have brought a s.47A claim for damages going back as far as 1997 but no earlier.  That would make good sense because it would mean that the introduction of the s.47A regime did not ‘revive’ claims that had otherwise expired.

The main problem with that ‘obvious’ interpretation is that it would lead to very strange consequences when, in 2015, rule 31(4) was dropped.  One possibility is that the effect of dropping rule 31(4) was that, all of a sudden and for no apparent reason, from 2015 claimants were allowed to bring claims for damages which were time-barred in 2003 and which had remained time-barred until 2015.  That would be very surprising.  The only way to avoid such a result would be to say – and this is essentially what MasterCard said – that the rules should continue to be applied as if rule 31(4) still applies.  But that is  an ambitious argument given that the rule was deliberately dropped.

The Tribunal resolved these problems by deciding that what I have called the ‘obvious’ reading of rule 31(4) is wrong.  In fact, the Tribunal held, rule 31(4) required one to ask whether the entire proceedings would have been time-barred in 2003 when s.47A was introduced.  If the answer is that the proceedings would not have been time-barred, because some of the damage was still within the limitation period, then the claimants could have started s.47A follow-on proceedings for the entire loss.  Thus, to take my example of an infringement lasting from 1993 to 2003, the fact that the 1997-2003 period was not limitation-barred in 2003 meant that claimants were entitled to start s.47A proceedings for the entire 1993-2003 period.  Section 47A therefore did, in this limited sense, revive claims that had otherwise expired.

This approach to rule 31(4) has the particular attraction of enabling one to explain why the rule was dropped in 2015.  The explanation, according to the Tribunal, is a practical one: it is extremely unlikely that there will be an infringement decision after 2015 which relates to damages which were entirely limitation-barred in 2003.  Thus, rule 31(4) is no longer practically necessary; the problem with which it was concerned will no longer arise.

The upshot of all of this is that the Tribunal has decided that rule 31(4) never prevented claimants from pursuing claims going back as far as 1993 (or earlier), provided that some part of the damage was suffered in or after 1997, and the fact that rule 31(4) has now been dropped is entirely understandable and makes no practical difference.  Claims can still be brought going back to 1993 (or earlier).  It is undoubtedly a neat solution.

On the other hand, consider this.  It seems pretty unlikely that any claimant who had brought a claim in, say, 2004, or 2014, would have been able to persuade the Tribunal that the 2003 rules had revived claims that were otherwise time-barred.  It is only because the rule was revoked in 2015, and because the Tribunal used the fact of revocation as being relevant to its meaning when originally enacted, that the Tribunal interpreted the rule in the way that it did.  Thus, claims which were time-barred in 2003, and which would probably have been treated as time-barred up until 2015, are now to be treated as having been revived in 2003.  That may well be the least bad interpretation of the regime, but one can well understand why the Tribunal did not find the matter at all easy.

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The passing-on “defence” after Sainsbury’s

The passing-on defence – ie. whether the damages suffered by a purchaser of a product which has been the subject of a cartel are reduced if he passes on the overcharge to his own customers – had, as Tristan Jones blogged a few years ago, been the subject of much policy discussion but relatively little legal analysis in the English case law.

That remained the position when the Competition Appeal Tribunal heard the claim in Sainsbury’s Supermarkets v Mastercard Incorporated and others [2016] CAT 11. The Judgment, handed down on 14 July, noted at §483 that there had been no case under English law substantively dealing with the pass-on defence. It represents the first English judgment which gives detailed consideration to the defence following full argument.

However, despite its length (running to some 300 pages), the Judgment leaves us with a number of big questions about the nature and scope of the defence.

The four key principles which emerge from the Judgment are as follows.

First, the Tribunal considered that the passing-on “defence” (their quotation marks) is no more than an aspect of the process of the assessment of damage. “The pass on “defence””, the Tribunal reasoned, “is in reality not a defence at all: it simply reflects the need to ensure that a claimant is sufficiently compensated and not overcompensated, by a defendant. The corollary is that the defendant is not forced to pay more than compensatory damages, when considering all of the potential claimants”(§484(3)). The “thrust of the defence” is to ensure that the claimant is not overcompensated and the defendant does not pay damages twice for the same wrong (§480(2)).

Second, the passing-on defence is only concerned with identifiable increases in prices by a firm to its customers and not with other responses by a purchaser such as cost savings or reduced expenditure. The Tribunal considered that although an economist might define pass-on more widely to include such responses (and there is a discussion of this in the Judgment at §§432-437), the legal definition of a passed-on cost differs because whilst “an economist is concerned with how an enterprise recovers its costs… a lawyer is concerned with whether or not a specific claim is well founded” (§484(4)).

Third, that the increase in price must be “causally connected with the overcharge, and demonstrably so” (§484(4)(ii)).

Fourth, that, given the danger in presuming pass-on of costs, “the pass-on “defence” ought only to succeed where, on the balance of probabilities, the defendant has shown that there exists another class of claimant, downstream of the claimant(s) in the action, to whom the overcharge has been passed on. Unless the defendant (and we stress that the burden is on the defendant) demonstrates the existence of such a class, we consider that a claimant’s recovery of the overcharge incurred by it should not be reduced or defeated on this ground” (emphasis original) (§484(5)).

But these principles leave a number of questions.

First, the Judgment firmly places the burden on defendant (and the importance of that is brought home when the Tribunal considered the issue of interest without this burden and, having found that Mastercard’s passing-on defence failed, nevertheless reduced the interest payable to Sainsbury’s by 50% because of passing-on). However, precisely what the Defendant has to demonstrate is less plain.

The Judgment refers to Mastercard’s passing-on defence failing because of a failure to show an increase in retail price (§485); language which reflects back to §484(4)(ii). But an increase in price is not the language used when the Tribunal states the test, and the Judgment leaves open whether demonstrating an increase in price would in itself be sufficient to satisfy the requirement to show the existence of “another class of claimant downstream of the claimant(s) in the action, to whom the overcharge has been passed on”.

Second, and similarly, there is no explanation of what the Tribunal means by the term “causally connected” (or, rather, “demonstrably” causally connected) when it refers to the need for the increase in price to be connected to the overcharge. It might be – as was suggested in our earlier blog – that, applying ordinary English principles of causation and mitigation, a party would need to show that the price increase or the benefit arises out of the breach. Given the Tribunal’s repeated statements that the defence is not really a defence at all but is simply an aspect of the process of the assessment of damages (§§480(2), 484(4)), such an approach would, at first blush, sit perfectly with the Judgment.

However, third, the Tribunal’s splitting of passing-on from other responses to an overcharge creates some confusion in this regard. Under the Tribunal’s approach cost savings are not to be considered under the passing-on defence (§484(4)) but must be considered under an analysis of mitigation (§§472-478). It is, however, difficult to separate out principles of mitigation and causation in this context.  Indeed, the Tribunal, when discussing mitigation, expressly recognised that the issue is “akin to one of causation” (§475). But the Tribunal took pains to emphasise that an assessment of passing-on and mitigation are separate exercises, without explaining whether and if so in what way the test in the context of mitigation – said to be that the benefit must “bear some relation to” the damage suffered as a result of the breach (§475) – differs from that of causation in the passing-on defence.

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Economic complexity: CAT vs High Court

One of the advantages of the Competition Appeal Tribunal is said to be the fact that its three-member panel typically includes an economist. But is that really such a big advantage over the High Court?

The question is particularly topical in light of a couple of recent trends. On the one hand, recent legislative developments have increased the jurisdictional overlap between the CAT and the High Court, so that litigants more frequently face a choice between the two. In making that choice, the CAT’s economic expertise can exert a strong pull. Claimants might plead their case narrowly in order to come within its limited powers. Or, parties might seek to transfer their case across to the CAT from the High Court (not always successfully – see here).

On the other hand, there have been several indications that more could be done to make economic issues accessible to High Court Judges. A high-profile example is the recent Streetmap case, in which the experts gave evidence concurrently in a “hot tub” arrangement. Another example comes from the MasterCard litigation, in which Mr Justice Flaux recently asked whether it might help for the trial judge to be assisted by an expert economist appointed as an Assessor under CPR 35.15. I understand that the suggestion has not been taken any further in that particular case, but the general idea of using Assessors was also endorsed by another judge at a recent lecture on competition litigation.

Another tool which could be used much more widely in competition cases is the use of ‘teach-ins’ at which an independent expert spends time (perhaps a couple of days) educating the judge on the basic economic concepts relevant to the case. Care obviously needs to be taken to ensure that the teacher does not take a stance on controversial issues in the case. But if it is done well, as a recent patent case shows, it can be an invaluable way of helping a judge to prepare for a complex trial.

Of course, all of these techniques could be used in the CAT as well as in the High Court. It is perhaps too easy for parties in the CAT to assume that, just because there is an economist on the Panel, there is no need to do any more to make the economic issues accessible. The economist can only do so much, and the role does not include providing formal training to the other Panellists.

Against that background, it is worth revisiting the advantages of having an economist on the CAT Panel. The first is that he/she is fully involved in the hearing, and able to ask questions of the parties’ expert witnesses. Anyone who appears regularly in the CAT will have seen cases in which it is the economist Panellist who manages to cut through the arguments and identify the central point.

But there is no reason in principle why that advantage could not be replicated in the High Court. An Assessor could be appointed with the function of (among other things) asking question of the expert witnesses.  In practice this would be an unusual request, and of course the parties would need to foot the bill.  But there is no reason in principle why it could not be done.

The other main benefit of having an economist on the Panel is that he/she participates fully in the decision making. He works collaboratively, in private, with the other Panellists as they reach their decision. In contrast, if an Assessor were appointed in the High Court to help the judge reach a decision on the economic issues in the case, his advice would need to be given in public so that the parties could comment on it (see the Court of Appeal’s guidance at paragraphs 18-21 of this patent case). Such a process would be much more cumbersome than that in the CAT, but it would at least ensure that the parties could engage fully with the thinking of every economist involved in the case.

I do not mean to suggest that parties in economically complex cases should flock to the High Court rather than the CAT. But it is worth thinking hard before tailoring a case to fit within the CAT’s limited powers, or getting into a procedural fight over the forum. With a bit of imagination, and provided the parties are willing to pay for it, much can be done to assist the judge in the High Court to match many of the advantages available as a matter of course in the CAT.

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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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Skyscanner: CAT quashes commitments in the online booking sector

In a judgment handed down on Friday, the Competition Appeal Tribunal has quashed the Office of Fair Trading’s decision to accept commitments in the online hotel booking sector. As the first case to consider such commitments, Skyscanner Ltd v CMA [2014] CAT 16 contains some helpful guidance, albeit that Skyscanner’s success actually hinged on a fairly narrow point of regulatory law. Continue reading

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Dogma in telecoms, cream for the CAT: 08- numbers in the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court yesterday handed down judgment in British Telecommunications plc v Telefónica O2 UK Ltd & Ors [2014] UKSC 42. Reversing the decision of the Court of Appeal (blogged on here by Emily Neill), Lord Sumption for a unanimous Supreme Court held that there had been no basis for Ofcom to disallow BT’s introduction of “ladder pricing” in wholesale termination charges for certain non-geographic telephone numbers (specifically 080, 0845 and 0870, whence the litigation’s popular name among telecoms lawyers: “08- numbers”). Continue reading

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Tobacco decision: the Court of Appeal emphasises finality

The Court of Appeal yesterday delivered a judgment that should finally draw a line under one of the Office of Fair Trading’s more troublesome cases – and which will presumably bring a great sigh of relief from the Competition and Markets Authority, the body that has now taken over the OFT’s functions. Continue reading

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