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Brexit and implications for UK Merger Control – Part 2/3: Implications for the CMA’s workload and what not to do

The Competition Bulletin is pleased to welcome the second in a three-part series of blogs on Brexit and merger control by Ben Forbes and Mat Hughes of AlixPartners.  Ben and Mat are (with others) co-authors of the new Sweet & Maxwell book, “UK Merger Control: Law and Practice”.

Part one focused on the voluntary nature of UK merger control and can be found here.

Introduction – the CMA’s mergers workload will increase

At present, UK mergers that meet certain turnover thresholds fall exclusively under the jurisdiction of EU Merger Regulation[1]. However, Brexit is likely to end this “one-stop” merger control regime for UK companies, leading to more mergers being caught by UK merger control.

To put this in context, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published 72 decisions concerning qualifying mergers in 2014/15, and 60 such decisions in 2015/16.  Even 20 or 30 more UK merger decisions would therefore represent a very substantial increase in the CMA’s workload, and large-scale European mergers may impact multiple UK markets.  The CMA’s workload will further increase as Brexit will also mean that the UK authorities acquire sole responsibility for enforcing all competition law in the UK.

This part of our blog series focuses specifically on two particularly poor, but often-discussed, options for reducing the CMA’s mergers workload (i.e. what not to do):

  • Removing the ‘share of supply’ test; and
  • Integrating the CMA’s Phase 1 and Phase 2 review teams.

The reason for this starting point is that the UK merger control regime has been subject to extensive fine-tuning in recent years, and it is important to ensure that future changes do not compromise the efficacy of the regime.

The third part of this blog series will focus on much more sensible options for adjusting UK merger control.

Should the CMA look at fewer mergers, and is the ‘share of supply’ test an appropriate jurisdictional threshold?

As set out in the first part of this blog, the CMA focuses more of its investigations on anti-competitive mergers than under the EU Merger Regulation. Nevertheless, another distinctive feature of UK merger control is that mergers may qualify for investigation where the merger creates (or enhances) a market share of 25% or more in the UK, or a “substantial part” of the UK (the so-called “share of supply” test). They may also qualify where the UK turnover of the target firm exceeds £70 million (the “turnover test”).

The share of supply test can be applied very narrowly at both:

  • The product level – This is because the share of supply test is based on the “description” of goods and services. These descriptions can be very narrow and do not need to correspond to economic markets; and
  • The geographic level Small parts of the UK (such as Slough), which the CMA considers to be a “substantial” part of the UK.

The share of supply test often creates uncertainty for the parties. Often they do not know the products and geographic area over which the CMA will apply the test. They may also not know their competitors’ sales, making market shares difficult to calculate.  It is therefore legitimate to question whether the share of supply is an appropriate jurisdictional threshold.

However, we believe there are two good reasons for retaining the share of supply test.  First, the share of supply test captures effectively mergers that may be problematic. From 1 April 2010 to 30 September 2016, 56% (53 cases) of the 95 Phase 1 merger cases that were either cleared subject to undertakings in lieu of reference or referred only qualified for investigation under the share of supply test.  Abandoning the share of supply test would therefore grant a “free pass” to these mergers – unless the turnover test is reduced.

The jurisdictional basis of Phase 1 merger cases either cleared subject to undertakings in lieu of reference or referred

ap

Source: AlixPartners analysis

Second, the share of supply test is a highly effective and focussed way of enabling the CMA to investigate mergers that may lead to a SLC.  In particular, UK merger control focuses on mergers that create or enhance high market shares, or that reduce the number of competitors from four to three (or fewer). Between 1 April 2010 and 31 March 2016, 94% of Phase 1 mergers where undertakings in lieu were accepted or the merger was referred, involved horizontal mergers between competitors where:

  • The merger created or enhanced high market shares of 40 per cent or more;
  • The merger reduced the number of competitors from four to three (or fewer), or where the merged undertaking’s market share exceeded 35% (calculated on various different bases).[2]

Should the CMA be fully integrated such that there is no distinction between the review teams at Phase 1 and Phase 2?

Creating the CMA as a single, integrated competition authority was intended to yield various synergies. In particular, the CMA has responsibility for both Phase 1 merger review (previously carried out by the Office of Fair Trading) and Phase 2 merger review (previously carried out by the Competition Commission).  However, a clear distinction between Phase 1 and Phase 2 has been retained.  In contrast to most other competition authorities, at Phase 2, a new case team is appointed, with largely separate staff to Phase 1 and the decision makers at Phase 1 are not involved at Phase 2.  The purpose of this structure was to retain the independence of the decision makers at Phase 2, with the CMA Panel making the final decisions at Phase 2.

The particular concern is that an integrated Phase 1 and 2 process would suffer from “confirmation bias”, namely a case team finding a competition problem at Phase 1 may be predisposed to follow suit at Phase 2.

The CMAs’ costs, and possibly those of the parties, could be reduced to some degree by dispensing with the separation of the Phase 2 and Phase 1.  However, as the government indicated when it created the CMA, the independence and impartiality of the Phase 2 regime is a particular strength of UK merger control.  Whilst the government consulted in May 2016 on the precise structure, identity and number of CMA panel members, there are strong arguments for retaining the independence and impartiality of the CMA panel.

Conclusions

Notwithstanding the inevitable increase in the CMA’s workload we would not recommend either:

  • Abandoning the share of supply test. This test is a strength of the UK regime as it focuses UK merger control on mergers that experience suggests are most likely to lead to competition concerns; or
  • Changing materially the independent and impartial nature of the CMA in relation to its investigation of Phase 1 and Phase 2 mergers.

Part three of this blog series considers, in our view, much more sensible adjustments to UK merger control to reduce the CMA’s workload without compromising its effectiveness.

[1]    There are provisions for mergers to be referred down to individual member states and up to the Commission from member states.

[2]    See further s.6-009 of “UK Merger Control: Law and Practice”, Parr, Finbow and Hughes, Third Edition, Sweet & Maxwell, November 2016.

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Brexit and implications for UK Merger Control – Part 1/3: Should UK merger control filings be mandatory?

The Competition Bulletin is pleased to welcome the first in a three-part series of blogs on Brexit and merger control by Ben Forbes and Mat Hughes of AlixPartners.  Ben and Mat are (with others) co-authors of the new Sweet & Maxwell book, “UK Merger Control: Law and Practice”. They can be contacted on bforbes@alixpartners.com and mhughes@alixpartners.com.

Introduction

Brexit will have wide-ranging impacts on the UK economy and society, including on merger control in the UK.

The focus of this blog is the voluntary nature of UK merger control.  Our subsequent blogs will consider the UK Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) workload post-Brexit, and the appropriate mitigating steps to manage the likely increase in workload.

Why are merger filings voluntary in the UK when they are mandatory from Albania to Uruguay?

In contrast to most other countries’ merger control regimes, including the EU Merger Regulation, UK merger control is “voluntary”. This means there is no requirement for mergers to be notified to the CMA prior to completion or at all. Whilst this is not a new issue, it is appropriate to revisit this point as post-Brexit the CMA will have sole responsibility to assess mergers that affect UK markets, which raises the question of whether the UK system should be made mandatory, as it is in most countries.

One important issue is whether UK merger control would be more efficient or effective if UK merger filings were mandatory prior to completion.

Mandatory regimes are not efficient – finding needles in haystacks

Considering first efficiency, it is highly unlikely that anyone wishing to reduce the CMA’s workload would propose mandatory filings. This is because mandatory regimes require the parties to file – and the competition authority to investigate – regardless of whether the merger raises any real competition issues that warrant investigation.[1]

However, just how inefficient would a mandatory regime be? Over the last five years, only 7.0% of the mergers notified to the European Commission were either cleared subject to commitments at Phase 1 or subject to Phase 2 review.[2]

By contrast, over a similar period,[3] 30.4% of the CMA’s Phase 1 decisions relating to qualifying UK mergers were either: (a) clearances subject to undertakings in lieu of reference; (b) clearances on de minimis grounds (which is not a basis for clearing mergers under the EU Merger Regulation – covered in part three of this series); (c) or subject to Phase 2 review. Moreover, over this period, 40.5% of qualifying UK mergers were subject to a case review meeting (such meetings are called by the CMA in relation to all mergers that may warrant detailed Phase 2 investigation).

These figures indicate that the UK merger control regime, with its voluntary filing rule, is far more focussed on investigating mergers that may be anti-competitive, rather than finding needles in haystacks.

Mandatory regimes may fail to capture all anti-competitive mergers – keeping it (jurisdiction) simple may be stupid

Another difficulty with mandatory regimes is that, because notification is mandatory, in order to make the system business-friendly the jurisdictional criteria tend to be relatively simple. Accordingly, mandatory regimes typically apply to certain types of merger transactions and depend on the turnover of the parties.[4]  However, there are trade-offs between the simplicity of these criteria (and legal certainty), failing to capture anti-competitive mergers, and inefficiently investigating and delaying mergers that are not problematic.

For example, the European Commission has consulted on extending the EU Merger Regulation to the acquisition of minority stakes in rivals or firms active in related markets, even where the firm has not acquired “control”.[5]  Similarly, the European Commission has consulted on whether the EU’s turnover thresholds should be expanded by adding more thresholds.  In 2016, the Commission observed that turnover based jurisdictional thresholds may be particularly problematic “in certain sectors, such as the digital and pharmaceutical industries, where the acquired company, while having generated little turnover as yet, may play a competitive role, hold commercially valuable data, or have a considerable market potential for other reasons.”[6]  In both instances, the concern is that anti-competitive mergers may be escaping scrutiny under EU merger control.

Whatever the precise scale and seriousness of any enforcement gaps in EU merger control, any such gaps are smaller in relation to UK merger control. In large part this reflects the more subjective nature of the jurisdictional tests applied. For example, UK merger control applies where firms acquire “material influence” over another firm, which is less than “control” under the EU Merger Regulation.  Similarly, UK merger control is not limited to a turnover based threshold. This is because a merger may also qualify if market shares of 25% or more are created or enhanced in the supply or acquisition of particular goods or services, whether in the UK as a whole or a substantial part of the UK. Accordingly, the CMA can investigate the acquisition of small competitors with low turnovers where the so called “share of supply” test is satisfied.

The downsides of voluntary filings are low

There are two potential downsides of voluntary filings. First, the CMA may fail to investigate some anti-competitive mergers that were not voluntarily notified. While this is possible, this is likely to be rare. In particular, from 1 April 2015 to 8 March 2016, the CMA’s Merger Intelligence Committee (MIC) reviewed more than 550 transactions to assess whether they warranted investigation. Ultimately, the CMA only investigated a small minority of these mergers, but approximately 20% of the CMA’s decisions over this period resulted from MIC investigations into non-notified mergers.[7]

In short, the parties to anti-competitive mergers, even in small markets, should not assume that by not notifying they can “fly under the radar” and avoid investigation.  It is particularly unlikely that large UK mergers that currently fall for consideration under the EU Merger Regulation will escape scrutiny from the CMA.

A second potential downside is that, after merger integration, it may be difficult for the CMA to re-create two independent firms. However, this issue is largely addressed by the CMA’s power to impose “hold separate orders” in relation to completed mergers that prevent merger integration pending the CMA’s final decision.  The CMA routinely exercises this power, but it may revoke the order earlier if it becomes clear that there are no issues.

Conclusions

The voluntary nature of UK merger control is unusual compared to most merger control regimes. Brexit naturally raises questions as to whether this should persist as the UK CMA is likely to acquire sole responsibility to investigate mergers affecting the UK.  However, in our view, there is not a good case for the UK to impose a mandatory regime on either efficiency or efficacy grounds.  This is particularly the case in light of the likely increase in the CMA’s mergers workload post-Brexit, which is the focus of our next two blogs.

[1]    In 2011, the UK government considered and rejected both mandatory pre-notification for mergers, and a hybrid system that would require mandatory filings above the current UK turnover threshold of £70 million.

[2]    These figures do not consider the impact of merger cases that were referred to and from member states.

[3]    The UK statistics cover the period from 1 April 2012 to 31 December 2016.

[4]    This is obviously a simplification, and some countries’ jurisdictional thresholds are highly complex. A good review of merger control in 50 countries is set out in “The International Comparative Legal Guide to: Merger Control 2017”.

[5] See further the Competition Law Forum’s discussion of these issues, available at http://www.biicl.org/documents/346_the_clf_response_to_the_european_commissions_consultation_towards_more_effective_eu_merger_control.pdf?showdocument=1

[6]    European Commission, “Consultation on Evaluation of procedural and jurisdictional aspects of EU merger control”.

[7]    https://events.lawsociety.org.uk/uploads/files/0a14983f-fb2f-4297-9884-aa9382c52b90.pdf

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License fees, invalid patents and Article 101 TFEU: Genentech v Hoechst and Sanofi-Aventis

Consider an agreement under which a license fee is payable for use of a patented technology even if it transpires that the patent is invalid. Is such an agreement contrary to Article 101 TFEU? The answer is no, provided that the licensee is able freely to terminate the contract by giving reasonable notice. Some years ago the ECJ so held in relation to expired patents: C-320/87 Ottung [1989] ECR 1177 at §13. The recent decision in C-567/14 Genentech v Hoechst and Sanofi-Aventis clarifies that the same proposition applies to revoked patents (and indeed to patents which are valid but have not been infringed). The case also throws into sharp relief the tensions that may arise between European competition law and domestic procedural rules on the reviewability of arbitrations.

Facts

In 1992, Genentech (“G”) was granted a worldwide non-exclusive license for the use of technology which was subject of a European patent as well as two patents issued in the United States. G undertook to pay inter alia a ‘running royalty’ of 0.5% levied on the amount of sales of ‘finished products’ as defined in the license agreement (“the Agreement”).  G was entitled to terminate the Agreement on two months’ notice.

The European patent was revoked in 1999. G unsuccessfully sought revocation of the United States patents in 2008 but this action failed; these patents therefore remained validly in place. G was later held liable in an arbitration to pay the running royalty. Late in the day in the arbitration proceedings, G alleged that construing the Agreement to require payment even in the event of patent revocation would violate EU competition law. That argument was rejected by the arbitrator. G sought annulment of the relevant arbitration awards in an action before the Court of Appeal, Paris. From that court sprung the preliminary reference that is the subject of this blog.

Effective EU competition law vs domestic restrictions on review of arbitration awards

Hoechst and Sanofi Aventis (the parties to whom the running royalty was due and not paid) argued that the reference was inadmissible because of French rules of procedure preventing any review of international arbitral awards unless the infringement was ‘flagrant’ (AG Op §§48-67) and the arbitral tribunal had not considered the point (AG Op §§68-72). In essence, the CJEU rejected this argument on the narrow basis that it was required to abide by the national court’s decision requesting a preliminary ruling unless that decision had been overturned under the relevant national law (§§22-23). Interestingly, the Advocate General ranged much more broadly in reaching the same conclusion, stating that these limitations on the review of international arbitral awards were “contrary to the principle of effectiveness of EU law”, (n)o system can accept infringements of its most fundamental rules making up its public policy, irrespective of whether or not those infringements are flagrant or obvious” and “one or more parties to agreements which might be regarded as anticompetitive cannot put these agreements beyond the reach of review under Articles 101 TFEU and 102 TFEU by resorting to arbitration” (AG Op §§58, 67 and 72).

Ruling on Article 101 TFEU

As mentioned above, this aspect of the CJEU’s ruling builds on the earlier decision in C-320/87 Ottung [1989] ECR 1177.  A single, simple proposition emerges. An agreement to pay a license fee to use a patented technology does not contravene Article 101 just because the license fee remains payable in case of invalidity, revocation or non-infringement, provided that the licensee is free to terminate the agreement by giving reasonable notice (Ottung §13; Genentech §§40-43).

Digging deeper, two practical caveats must be added. First, it would be unsafe to assume that contractual restrictions on termination are the only restrictions on the licensee’s freedom that are relevant to the assessment. The Advocate General’s opinion in Genentech gives the further example of restrictions on the licensee’s ability to challenge the validity or infringement of the patents (AG Op §104). Indeed, any post-termination restriction which interferes with the licensee’s “freedom of action” might change the outcome if it places the licensee at a competitive disadvantage as against other users of the technology (AG Op §§91, 104; Ottung §13). Second, on the facts of Genentech, the commercial purpose of the Agreement was to enable the licensee to use the technology at issue while avoiding patent litigation (§32). Accordingly, it was clear that fees payable were connected to the subject matter of the agreement (AG Op §94). It is unlikely that a license agreement imposing supplementary obligations unconnected to its subject matter would be treated in the same fashion (AG Op §§95, 104; C-193//83 Windsurfing International v Commission [1986] E.C.R. 611).

 

 

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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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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.

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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 Freight-Forwarding Cartels in the General Court: Lessons on Leniency and Discretion

On 29 February 2016, the General Court handed down its judgments in Case T-265/12 Schenker Ltd v European Commission; Case T-267/12 Deutsche Bahn AG and ors v European Commission, upholding the Commission’s decision on the freight forwarding cartels. The judgments provide some useful guidance on the operation of the leniency scheme and highlight the Commission’s broad discretion in deciding to whom it should attribute liability.

The Cartels

The applicants were found by the Commission to be participants in cartels relating to four different surcharges levied in the freight-forwarding sector between 2002-07.

The operation of the cartels was no lesson in subtlety. In the new export system cartel, the participants had organised their contacts in a ‘Gardening Club’ and had re-named surcharges according to vegetables. One set of minutes of the cartel’s meeting distinguished ‘standard asparagus’ from ‘contractual asparagus’, while another email explained ‘new equipment is on its way to enable fresh marrows and baby courgettes to hit the shops this month. Up to my elbows in fertilizer’.

The Commission fined 14 groups of companies a total of €169 million. The applicants were fined approximately €35 million for infringements of Article 101 TFEU and Article 53 of the EEA Agreement.

Leniency

The Commission began its investigation after an application for immunity was submitted by Deutsche Post AG (‘DP’). DP and its subsidiaries received full immunity from fines, while some other undertakings (including the applicants) received a reduction in fines ranging from 5 to 50 per cent.

In order to qualify as an immunity applicant under the Commission’s 2006 Leniency Notice, the evidence provided to the Commission must enable it (inter alia) to ‘carry out a targeted inspection in connection with the alleged cartel’ (paragraph 8(a)) and must include a ‘detailed description of the alleged cartel arrangement’ (paragraph 9(a)). The applicants contrasted the information initially provided by DP with the Commission’s final findings to argue that these criteria had not been met – in particular, no information was provided about one of the specific cartels, the CAF cartel.

The General Court rejected the applicants’ comparative approach. It explained that the Leniency Notice did ‘not require that the material submitted by an undertaking should constitute information and evidence pertaining specifically to the infringements which are identified by the Commission at the end of the administrative procedure’ (at [338], paragraph references in this post are to T-267/12). It was sufficient that the information provided by DP ‘justified an initial suspicion on the part of the Commission concerning alleged anticompetitive conduct covering, inter alia, the CAF cartel’ (at [340]).

The applicants also argued that the Commission had breached the principle of equal treatment by treating DP’s immunity application differently from the leniency applications of other undertakings. When assessing DP’s immunity application, the Commission granted conditional immunity on the basis of the information it had at the time, and then granted final immunity by considering whether those conditions had been satisfied. In contrast, when considering the applications for reductions of fines made by other undertakings, the Commission considered at the end of its procedure whether the information provided had added value.

The General Court upheld this approach. It explained that the Leniency Notice is structured such that an ex ante assessment is to be carried out in respect of applications for immunity only (at [358]). This distinction is justified by the objectives of (i) encouraging undertakings to cooperate as early as possible with the Commission, and (ii) ensuring that undertakings which are not the first to cooperate do not receive ‘advantages which exceed the level that is necessary to ensure that the leniency programme and the administrative procedure are fully effective’ (at [359]).

Attribution of Liability

A further ground of challenge concerned the Commission’s decision to hold Schenker China solely liable as the economic successor for the conduct of Bax Global, rather than including Bax Global’s former parent company.

The General Court noted that the Commission had a discretion concerning the choice of legal entities on which it can impose a penalty for an infringement of competition law (at [142]), but that such a discretion must be exercised with due regard to the principle of equal treatment (at [144]).

In the present case, the Commission had decided to hold liable parent companies of subsidiaries, but not former parent companies of subsidiaries. The General Court was content that such an approach was within the discretion available to the Commission. It was perfectly legitimate for the Commission to ‘take into consideration the fact that an approach designed to impose penalties on all the legal entities which might be held to be liable for an infringement might add considerably to the work involved in its investigations’ (at [148]). This purely administrative reason was sufficient to entitle the Commission to decline to attribute liability to a party who would be jointly and severally liable for the same infringement, even if the necessary consequence were to increase the fine levied against the existing addressee.

Given the sums involved, it would be no great surprise if the General Court’s judgments were appealed to the Court of Justice. In the meantime, there is greater certainty regarding the Commission’s approach to the Leniency Notice, and it is clear that the Commission has broad discretion in identifying the relevant addressees of its infringement decisions.

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