Tag Archives: competition law blog

Jurisdiction after a no deal Brexit

Time for some more speculation about the future which awaits us after 29 March.  The topic this time is jurisdiction.

As the readers of this blog will know, the rules of civil jurisdiction across the EU are currently governed by the Brussels Recast regulation.  The basic framework is:

  1. A defendant domiciled in a Member State can be sued in the court of its domicile and also in various other EU courts under certain specified gateways (e.g. in competition claims, the place where the cartel was concluded – see CDC).
  2. There are strong lis pendens provisions. In general, if the same issue is litigated in more than one Member State, the later proceedings must be stayed.
  3. There is protection for choice of forum contracts in favour of a court of a Member State. The courts of the chosen Member State will accept jurisdiction even if the defendant is not domiciled in that (or indeed any) Member State; and all other courts must stay proceedings in deference to the courts of the chosen Member State.

The proposed Withdrawal Agreement provides that the provisions of Brussels Recast will continue to apply to proceedings instituted during the transitional period.  But, as with most things, if there is no Withdrawal Agreement then things will get more interesting.

No deal Brexit: The law in England

The government’s intention in the event of no deal is that Brussels Recast will continue to apply to cases begun in England before Brexit, but otherwise it will be repealed.  A draft statutory instrument to that broad effect was published in December.

It is worth briefly pausing on this point to note that it is not obvious that the proposed statutory instrument will be lawful.  Under the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, the SI can only be made if it is required to remedy or mitigate a ‘deficiency’ in retained EU law.  The government has proceeded on the basis that Brussels Recast in a necessarily reciprocal arrangement and that the UK could not retain it if the EU does not do so too.  That may be open to debate.

However, assuming that the proposed SI is not challenged, the practical consequence will be that the English common law rules will apply instead of Brussels Recast to all cases commenced in England after exit day.  Whether that is a good thing rather depends on your perspective.

The English rules are certainly more flexible than the Brussels Recast rules.  In theory, there will be some cases which could be litigated in England under the English jurisdictional gateways which you could not litigate here under Brussels Recast.  For example, an English court could allow proceedings to be litigated in England even if there is a jurisdiction clause in favour of an EU Member State.  Other examples were given in Naina Patel and Andrew Scott’s previous blog on this topic.

On the other hand most of the English gateways are discretionary.  This gives rise to much more uncertainty, and in practice it may be somewhat optimistic to think that there are going to be lots of opportunities to bring new claims in England that could not have been brought under Brussels Recast.

No deal Brexit: The law in the EU

It may turn out that the more difficult problems will arise in proceedings in the EU-27.

It is worth starting with the obvious point that Brussels Recast will continue to apply, within the EU, to cases where the Defendant is domiciled in an EU Member State.  So, to take a simple example, an English company could still sue a German company in Germany.  That will give rise to various tactical possibilities for claimants wanting to sue an EU defendant.

  1. They might be able to sue in England, under English rules.
  2. They could sue in the EU. If within one of the Brussels Recast gateways, the EU court would (probably) be obliged to accept jurisdiction.
  3. Note that they could sue in the EU even if there is a jurisdiction clause in favour of England. Brussels Recast gives particular weight to such agreements but only if they are in favour of the courts of a Member State.  We therefore face the prospect of EU Member States being obliged by the Brussels Recast regulation to take jurisdiction over disputes even if there is a contractual agreement in favour of English courts.

Brussels Recast will also still apply, within the EU, to cases where there is a jurisdiction agreement in favour of an EU Member State, regardless of the domicile of the parties.  So for example: a German claimant could still sue an English defendant in the chosen EU court.  This gives rise to similar tactical possibilities as are set out above.

But Brussels Recast will not apply within the EU to cases where the Defendant is domiciled in England and there is no EU jurisdiction agreement.  In this scenario, the national rules of the Member States will apply.  For example: if a German company sues an English company in Germany then, in the absence of any jurisdiction agreement, German jurisdiction rules will apply.

There are therefore various complex means by which jurisdiction may be established in the EU in cases with an English connection.  To make matters more complex, all of this must be understood in light of the fact that the Brussels Recast lis pendens rules do not apply in relation to pending proceedings in third states.  Article 33 of Brussels Recast provides only that Member States may, in certain circumstances, stay proceedings to await the resolution of pending proceedings in a third state.  What this means in practice is that we face the prospect of the same parties being tied up in litigating the same issues in the UK and in the EU.

As to how quickly these changes might happen, the European Commission has recently (18th January 2019) published a Notice to Stakeholders which states that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Brussels Recast will continue to apply to cases involving a UK-domiciled defendant which were pending before EU courts on the withdrawal date.  The legal basis for that assertion is not explained, but even if it is true it will affect only a small number of cases.  The Commission has not expressed a view on other scenarios which appear rather more likely, such as whether Brussels Recast would apply to proceedings commenced in the EU post-Brexit but where there were pending proceedings in England pre-Brexit; or whether it would apply to jurisdiction agreements in favour of England entered into pre-Brexit.  The broad expectation appears to be that the UK will immediately cease to be treated as part of the Brussels Recast regime.

 

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Subsidiarity liability: Biogaran

I wrote a blog a few months ago on the circumstances in which a subsidiary can be held liable for the infringing conduct of its parent.  That is a somewhat special interest subject which might be said to have received more than its fair share of attention among English judges and lawyers. However, I cannot resist a short update to point out that the issue has recently received attention from the EU General Court.

The context was a clutch of appeals relating to the Commission’s decision on ‘pay-for-delay’ settlements relating to patents owned by the French pharmaceutical company Servier. One of the addressees of the decision was Biogaran, a 100% Servier subsidiary.  One of Biogaran’s grounds of appeal – which was rejected – was that the Commission had wrongly held it liable for an infringement carried out by its parent.

The judgment is not as clear as one might have hoped, and it is also not yet available in English. However, two points are tolerably clear.

The first point is that the General Court considered that a subsidiary may be liable for an infringement even if does not itself have the knowledge that is ordinarily required to find an infringement: see [223]-[225].  That said, it appears that Biogaran did have at least some knowledge, so the precise limits of the court’s analysis are open to debate.

The second point relates to implementation.  Some parts of the Court’s judgment may be read as suggesting that a subsidiary may be liable even if it has played no role in the implementation of the infringement.  Other parts may be read as meaning that the subsidiary must play role in implementation but that it can be relatively minor: at [225] the Court refers to implementation “even in a subordinate, accessory or passive manner.”

So Biogaran is unlikely to be the final word on this issue.  It does, however, tilt the balance more firmly in favour of subsidiary liability than some English judges might be comfortable with.

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Anchoring claims to a UK subsidiary

The recent decision of the High Court in Vattenfall AB v Prysmian SpA [2018] EWHC 1694 (Ch) is another example of claimants being allowed to use non-addressee English subsidiaries as anchor defendants for their competition damages claims.  It is also another example of the court considering but not actually having to decide the interesting legal points around attribution of liability which potentially arise in such cases.

There have now been several cases with the same basic structure: the European Commission decides that a company is liable for a competition law infringement and some claimants then start proceedings against that company’s English subsidiary in order to establish jurisdiction in England.  The defendant objects to the claimants’ attempt to sue an entity which was not, after all, an addressee of the Commission’s decision simply to use it as a means of bringing proceedings in London.

The problem which defendants face in such a scenario, and the reason why they keep losing these cases, is that it is relatively easy for claimants to allege that the English subsidiary was knowingly involved in the infringement.  If the Commission has found that there was an EU-wide infringement then it will often be entirely proper for the claimants to infer, at least sufficiently to meet the low threshold for establishing jurisdiction, that the infringement was implemented in England through the English subsidiary.  In Vatenfall the claimants had the additional benefit of being able to point to concrete evidence in support of their knowing implementation plea.  Provided that such a plea is properly made, a standalone claim can be run against the English subsidiary which can then be used as the anchor defendant.

The more interesting legal question is what the position would be if a claimant cannot properly plead a standalone case of knowing implementation against the English subsidiary.  Could the parent’s liability be attributed to the subsidiary so that the subsidiary can be sued and used as an anchor defendant even though it was not involved in the cartel?  The English judges who have considered this question have expressed different views about it.

One view is that the answer is that liability can be attributed from an infringing subsidiary to its parent company but not the other way round.  Supporters of this view point to the fact that, when discussing attribution of liability in the line of cases starting with Akzo Nobel NV v European Commission [2009] 5 CMLR 23, the European Courts have been concerned only with imputing liability to a parent company, and that they only permit such attribution if the parent exercised a ‘decisive influence’ over the infringing subsidiary.

The problem, however, is that the reasoning in the Akzo Nobel line of cases is expressed in quite wide-reaching terms.  The basic logic is that if the parent and subsidiary are part of the same single economic unit then they form a single undertaking, and that if an undertaking infringes competition law then all of its legal entities are liable for the breach.  The ‘decisive influence’ test is really about determining whether the parent and subsidiary are part of the same economic unit, not an additional threshold for the attribution of liability between companies which are in the same economic unit.

Thus the alternative view is that the liability can be attributed between any and all companies in the same undertaking.  This has caused some consternation among English judges because of its apparently wide-reaching consequences.  Does it mean that liability could be attributed to a subsidiary with no knowledge of or involvement in a cartel?  Or even from one subsidiary to another?

In the Sainsbury’s case ([2016] CAT 11) at [363] the CAT suggested something of a compromise: liability could be attributed between companies in the same undertaking but only if they had “in some way” participated in the breach or otherwise exercised a decisive influence over a company which did.  That is a sensible solution, but it might be said that it still sits somewhat uncomfortably with the reasoning in Akzo Nobel.

A different way of formulating the point might be as follows.  In accordance with the reasoning in Akzo Nobel, liability can always be attributed between companies in the same undertaking.  However, when asking whether companies are in the same “undertaking” one needs to keep in mind that the identification of an undertaking depends on the circumstances.  In a competition infringement case, the question is whether the companies acted as a single economic unit for the purposes of the infringement.  If they did then they are all part of the same undertaking and they are all liable.  If they did not then they are not part of the relevant undertaking and liability cannot be attributed to them from any other company in the group.

If this approach is correct then a subsidiary which genuinely had nothing to do with an infringement will not be liable for it.  But a subsidiary which, whether knowingly or not, acted in concert with other group companies such that they operated as a single economic unit to implement an infringement will be liable for it.  That is essentially (with slightly different reasoning) the approach which appealed to the CAT in Sainsbury’s, and it is a solution which avoids some of the extremes of other proposed solutions.

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Market dynamics in the counterfactual: more competitive, not just cheaper

The judgment of Phillips J in Sainsbury’s v Visa [2017] EWHC 3047 (Comm) demonstrates the importance to claimants in competition damages cases of identifying a counterfactual which not only involves lower prices but also involves higher levels of competition.

Sainsbury’s case

Visa’s payment card scheme required ‘acquirers’ (who process card payments on behalf on merchants) to pay an ‘interchange fee’ to the issuer of a payment card whenever a payment was made. All acquirers were required to accept all cards issued in the scheme (the so-called honour all cards rule or ‘HACR’). All issuers were required to remit to the acquirer the whole of the payment made by the customer, less the applicable interchange fee (this was called the ‘settlement at par’ rule). Acquirers passed on all of the interchange fees to merchants, as part of the merchant service charge which also included an element of profit margin for acquirers.

Visa set a default interchange fee (the multilateral interchange fee or ‘MIF’), though acquirers and issuers were free to negotiate different fees bilaterally. However, no acquirer had an incentive to agree to pay more, and no issuer had an incentive to agree to accept less than the MIF. The settlement at par rule prevented issuers from, in effect, forcing a higher interchange fee on acquirers by remitting customer payments at a discount. The HACR prevented acquirers with market power from forcing lower interchange fees on issuers by refusing to accept cards unless bilateral interchange fees were agreed.

The combined effect of these rules was to eliminate any competition as to the level of interchange fees. This was Sainsbury’s case and Visa accepted that these arrangements constituted a restriction of competition ‘in absolute terms’: [103-104].

Sainsbury’s proposed counterfactual, which the court accepted, was one in which there was no MIF set by Visa, but the settlement at par rule and HACR remained in force: [98]. This, in effect, amounted to a MIF of zero and the same dynamics between issuers and acquirers as existed in the factual would have prevented bilateral interchange fees from being agreed in the counterfactual: [126-129]. It followed that on Sainsbury’s counterfactual, the interchange fees paid would have been lower but not because of any re-introduction of competition in the setting of such fees. The suite of rules which had operated to eliminate competition in the factual would operate in the same way and with the same result in the counterfactual, just at different prices: [161]. Sainsbury’s claim therefore failed as it had not established that its loss was caused by a reduction in competition.

What went wrong?

Sainsbury’s counterfactual retained two key elements from the factual scheme: the settlement at par rule and the HACR. All parties agreed that the scheme would be unworkable if it incorporated the HACR but did not require settlement at par: [99]. Such a scheme would be equivalent to allowing issuers to set interchange fees unilaterally, by settling payments at a discount. Assuming acquirers continued to pass interchange fees on to merchants in full, this would result in merchants ceasing to accept Visa, as continued participation in the scheme would mean accepting all card payments regardless of the fee charged.

The parties do not appear, however, to have explored the possibility of a truly bilateral system in which neither the settlement at par rule nor the HACR applied. In a counterfactual from which both of these rules were absent, issuers and acquirers would have been forced to negotiate terms of settlement bilaterally. Issuers would have wished to agree a higher interchange fee (or a larger discount from par) but would have been prevented from demanding too high a fee because of the risk that acquirers (in order to retain merchant business) would cease to accept a certain issuer’s cards.

This counterfactual involves a radical departure from the Visa scheme in the factual, but the market dynamic which would result is familiar: this is how competition works in so-called three-party schemes, such as American Express. The issuer faces competing incentives: higher fees make for greater profits per transaction, but too high fees reduce card acceptance by merchants and reduce transaction volume, ultimately reducing the appeal of the card to customers.

The outcome in this counterfactual could be a patch-work of differing fees charged by different issuers with corresponding variances in merchant acceptance. There are over 50 issuers and around 30 acquirers in the UK[1], which would give rise to a large (but in principle manageable) number of bilateral negotiations assuming the same number of issuers existed in the counterfactual. There may be good reason, however, to think that there would be fewer issuers in the counterfactual: If the setting of MIFs inhibited competition and raised issuer profits, it is likely also to have encouraged more issuers to enter the market than could have been sustained in a competitive scenario. Lower interchange fees, lower profits, the requirement to negotiate deals with all (or almost all) acquirers and the need to reassure prospective customers that the card would be widely accepted would all act to restrain the number of viable issuers in the counterfactual.

Merchants now indicate whether they accept Amex or Diners. Before the emergence of four-party schemes in the UK, merchants indicated whether they accepted Barclaycard, a card issued only by the bank of the same name. In the counterfactual described here, merchants would be required to indicate which of the major banks’ and independent issuers’ cards they accepted.

Of payment cards and dog races: monopoly and monopsony in price setting

Competition within the Visa scheme was inhibited by the fact that fees were set centrally for all participants. The scheme was controlled by participating issuing banks, so central price setting tended to result in higher fees. If merchants (or acquirers who did not also issue cards) had controlled the scheme, the result might have been that low or even negative interchange fees were set, but the result would have been no more competitive. The mischief against competition was the setting of prices centrally; control over the scheme determined which party stood to gain.

In Bookmaker’s Afternoon Greyhound Services [2009] LLR 584, cited by Phillips J at [91], the boot was on the other foot. Whereas in the Visa scheme, prices were set by or on behalf of the party receiving payment, in the BAGS case, prices were set by the paying party, which was controlled by the leading bookmakers, and which had a monopsony on buying live television footage from racecourses. When a group of racecourses jointly agreed to sell their footage exclusively through a newly formed distributor, prices for footage rose and BAGS claimed that the racecourses had acted anti-competitively. On the contrary, the court found, the market power of BAGS had been reduced and competition had been increased. As Phillips J pointed out in Sainsbury’s, the BAGS case shows the pitfalls of a facile analysis which equates price decreases with increases in competitive intensity and vice-versa.

It ought to be possible for the payment card market to operate competitively given the large number of retailers, banks and other issuers. Where collective price-setting is interposed between the parties on each side of the transaction, there is an obvious possibility of distortions to competition. It was common ground in Sainsbury’s that the Visa scheme as implemented had eliminated competition in the setting of interchange fees: [103-104]. A claimant seeking damages for the setting of payment card interchange fees should ask the court to consider a simple counterfactual, in which these distortions are eliminated: What would the result have been if the parties on each side had decided whether to transact with one-another and on what terms, without the central setting of prices or a compulsion to transact?

[1] In Arcadia v MasterCard [2017] EWHC 93 (Comm), at [103] Popplewell J found that there were 55 MasterCard issuers in 2015 in the UK; it is assumed that there were a similar number of Visa issuers.

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Collective (in)action? The CAT’s recent judgments on collective proceedings orders

At first glance, two recent judgments from the CAT may give the impression that the new UK class action regime is dead in the water. However, on closer inspection there is much in these judgments that prospective claimants will welcome.

The first decision was in the Pride mobility scooters case (see Tom Coates’ blog here). The CAT made clear that it might have been prepared to grant a collective proceedings order (“CPO”), but on a basis so narrow that the claimants chose not to proceed. In the second decision, Merricks v Mastercard Inc & Ors [2017] CAT 16, the CAT rejected the CPO application, bringing an end to what would have been an extraordinarily ambitious claim—on behalf of 46.2 million people, seeking aggregate damages of approximately £14 billion, for Mastercard’s unlawful setting of fallback multilateral interchange fees in breach of Article 101 TFEU.

Under the new provisions in s.47B of the Competition Act 1998, a CPO application must satisfy the CAT of two criteria. They are, in brief, that (i) the person bringing the proceedings is an appropriate representative of the class of claimants, and (ii) the claims are eligible for inclusion in collective proceedings.

In Merricks, as in Pride, the applicants succeeded on the first criterion but failed on the second. The CAT adopted a relatively liberal approach to certifying the class representative in both cases: a former ombudsman and consumer protection advocate in Merricks (§§93-94), and an advocate for pensioners’ rights in Pride (§§125-139).

The CAT was also satisfied with the litigation funding arrangements in both cases (Pride, §§140-145; Merricks, §§95-140); although it strongly criticised the “impenetrable” drafting of the American-style funding agreement in Merricks, and was only prepared to approve it in light of amendments proposed at the hearing: §§121-127. Prospective claimants will welcome the fact that, in neither Pride nor in Merricks was the CAT unduly concerned by the prospect of a shortfall between the applicants’ costs cover and respondents’ likely costs.

Where both claims failed, however, was on the eligibility criterion. This second criterion is further broken down in rule 80 of the CAT Rules 2015, which provides that claims will be eligible for inclusion in collective proceedings where they (a) are brought on behalf of an identifiable class of persons; (b) raise common issues; and (c) are suitable to be brought in collective proceedings.

In both cases, the CAT was prepared to accept that the claims were brought on behalf of an identifiable class of persons. In Pride that conclusion was uncontroversial, given that the class was defined as “any person who purchased a new Pride mobility scooter other than in the course of a business in the UK between 1 February 2010 and 29 February 2012” (§§5, 85). In Merricks, however, the CAT’s apparent acceptance of the class was no small matter. The class included all individuals who were over 16 years old at the time of the transaction, resident in the UK, and who purchased goods or services from UK businesses which accepted MasterCard cards, at any time over a 16 year period (§1). This included more than 46 million potential claimants; and yet, the CAT was untroubled by the “identifiable class” criterion.

As to the requirement that the claims raise common issues, in both cases the CAT emphasised that the appropriate approach was that followed in Canada, rather than the much stricter approach in the United States (Merricks, §58; Pride, §105). Although only three of the six issues in Merricks could properly be regarded as common, the CAT considered that to be sufficient.

In Pride, the applicant faced the difficulty of proving causation in circumstances where the regulator had focused on a small sample of infringing agreements (“the low-hanging evidential fruit”: §109), and the claimants were time-barred from pursuing anything other than a follow-on claim for the infringement (§110). The CAT’s decision on this issue may well create difficulties for other follow-on vertical infringement claims, but that category of claims is likely to be quite narrow.

In Merricks, the CAT was concerned about the methodology by which the applicant proposed to assess individual losses. The methodology needed to distinguish between three sets of issues: “individuals’ levels of expenditure; the merchants from whom they purchased; and the mix of products which they purchased” (§88). Regrettably, there had been “no attempt to approximate for any of those in the way damages would be paid out” (§88). The CAT observed that the experts’ oral evidence in response to questions from the Tribunal was “considerably more sophisticated and nuanced than that set out, rather briefly, in their Experts’ Report” (§76), but it still could not be satisfied that the damages sought would broadly reflect “the governing principle of damages for breach of competition law”, that is, “restoration of the claimants to the position they would have been in but for the breach” (§88). The judgment sounds a valuable warning to future claimants of the necessity for a detailed and precise methodology for calculating both individual and aggregate losses.

The CAT showed little sympathy for the applicant’s argument that refusing the CPO would result in a vast number of individuals who suffered loss going uncompensated, since there was no realistic prospect of claimants pursuing Mastercard individually. The CAT observed shortly that this was “effectively the position in most cases of widespread consumer loss resulting from competition law infringements” (§91).

The judgments in Pride and Merricks provide important guidance on the CAT’s likely approach to CPOs in future. In spite of the outcomes in both cases, the CAT’s ready acceptance of the proposed class representatives, its flexibility in regard to litigation funding, and its affirmation of the Canadian approach to collective action, are all likely to give heart to prospective claimants. Further, the judgment in Merricks leaves the door open to mass claims in the future, while signalling the heightened importance which expert evidence on calculating losses is likely to assume in such cases.

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Illegal counterfactuals: the Court of Appeal shuts the back door

Suppose a defendant to a competition claim runs a defence that, in the counterfactual world in which no anticompetitive conduct occurred, pricing would have been no different; and that the claimant replies, “maybe so, but only because you were at the same time operating some independent anti-competitive scheme, which must also be purged from the counter-factual”. Can the claimant amend his claim to plead the independent anti-competitive scheme raised in his Reply as the basis for a new substantive claim even where it would ordinarily be time-barred?

In February last year, Barling J appeared to answer, “Yes”, in a judgment given in the MasterCard litigation. On one view, the curious result of that judgment was that a claimant could apparently circumvent limitation rules by introducing a time-barred allegation of unlawfulness in his Reply, then using that as a basis to apply to amend his original claim. In other words, when a limitation point blocked the front door, claimants could still bring in new claims through the back.

The Court of Appeal, however, has now shut this back door, by overturning the High Court’s judgment. For the background to the judgments, and the details of Barling J’s decision, see my previous post here.

The issue before the Court was whether or not the new claim, premised on MasterCard’s Central Acquiring Rule (CAR) arose out of the same or substantially the same facts as the existing claim, premised on MasterCard’s Multilateral Interchange Fees (MIFs) (see CPR 17.4 and section 35(5) of the Limitation Act 1980). If it did, the Court could permit an amendment notwithstanding that it was time-barred. Barling J had held that it did on the following two grounds: first, the existing claim would already require an investigation into and evidence on the CAR; and, secondly, the claimants’ reply had pleaded that the CAR was unlawful and had to be excised from MasterCard’s counterfactual – so the new claim arose out of facts already in issue with respect to the existing claim.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with Barling J on both scores. Sales LJ said that the facts underlying each claim could not be said to be the same because the counterfactual inquiry required by each claim was so different (§46). On the existing claim, the counterfactual world was one in which the MasterCard rules in dispute (principally the MIFs) were excised but the CAR remained in place. On the new claim, however, the Court would have to investigate both the counterfactual world in which the MasterCard rules were excised as well as the CAR and the counterfactual world in which all the MasterCard rules remained in place but the CAR was excised.

Sales LJ, doubting the obiter comments of Waller LJ in Coudert Brothers v Normans Bay Ltd [2004] EWCA Civ 215, further said that the claimants could not introduce the new claim by pointing to their reply and saying that the CAR’s lawfulness was already in issue. The proper rule was that, where the defendant had pleaded facts by way of defence to the original claim, the claimant could introduce a new claim premised on those facts: Goode v Martin [2002] 1 WLR 1828. However, that was not the case here because MasterCard did not specifically rely on the CAR in its defence.

The Court of Appeal was further clearly motivated by a concern about the avoidance of limitation rules. Sales LJ said at §64:

“…it would be unfair to a defendant and would improperly subvert the intended effect of limitation defences set out in the Limitation Act if a claimant were to be able to introduce new factual averments in its reply (which are not the same as or substantially the same as what is already pleaded in the claim), after the expiry of a relevant limitation period, and then rely on that as a reason why it should be able to amend its claim with the benefit of the “relation back” rule to circumvent that limitation period.”

The curious result of Barling J’s judgment has therefore been reversed by the Court of Appeal. A claimant can no longer pull himself up by his own bootstraps; limitation now guards the back door as jealously as the front.

 

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Collective Proceedings in the CAT: mobility scooters roll on for now

Last Friday the CAT handed down a judgment on the first ever-application for a collective proceedings order under the new regime introduced by the Consumer Rights Act 2015. The judgment will generally be welcomed by potential claimants, but it has a sting in the tail which may cause serious difficulties for class actions in other vertical infringement cases.

The new collective proceedings regime, contained in section 47B CA98 and CAT Rules 75-98, was one of a suite of claimant-friendly measures aimed at improving the remedies for individual victims of competition infringements whose losses were low (other measures included, for example, the new fast-track procedure). Consistently with the regime’s objective, the CAT, although stopping short of reaching a final decision, said much about the scheme which will encourage claimants.

The proposed collective action is a follow-on claim against Pride, formerly the UK’s largest supplier of mobility scooters. The OFT (the national competition regulator) had found that Pride infringed the Chapter I prohibition by object by entering into 8 vertical agreements with retailers forbidding them from advertising mobility scooters online at prices below RRP. Those 8 agreements were in fact the result of a market-wide policy that Pride had been operating and which it had communicated to all of its retailers.

The key issues before the CAT were (broadly) the authorisation of Dorothy Gibson as the class representative (under section 47B(5) and CAT Rule 78), and certification of the claims for inclusion in collective proceedings on the basis that they raised common issues. On both issues, the CAT’s approach to the claimants was benevolent.

The CAT first dismissed the defendant’s preliminary objection. Pride pointed out that both the OFT decision and the underlying infringement pre-dated the introduction of the collective proceedings regime. On that basis, it fired a salvo of arguments based on Article 1 Protocol 1 of the ECHR, the EU Charter, and EU principles of legal certainty/legitimate expectations, the thrust of which was that the CAT should interpret the regime so as to disallow its “retrospective” application. The CAT shot down all these arguments in a comprehensive discussion that should see the end of any similar threshold points about collective proceedings applications.

The CAT also had little difficulty in authorising Ms Gibson as the class representative. Although not a mobility scooter consumer, her status as an advocate of pensioners’ rights (she is the chair of a representative body, the National Pensioner Convention), who had experienced lawyers, satisfied the CAT that she would act fairly and adequately in the interests of the class (§139; see CAT Rule 78(2)(a)). Moreover, the CAT was not concerned about her ability to pay Pride’s costs (see CAT Rule 78(2)(d)). Even though Ms Gibson’s ATE insurance cover level was less than Pride’s anticipated costs, the CAT stated shortly that those costs might not be reasonable or proportionate, so it would not be appropriate to disallow collective proceedings at that stage (§145).

The CAT’s approach to certification and commonality was also – in principle – liberal. Although it said that it could not “simply take at face value” (§102) the applicant’s expert evidence, it nonetheless rejected Pride’s submission that it should take a hyper-rigorous US-style attitude. Rather, the CAT endorsed the Canadian approach, approving at §105 the following comment of Rothstein J in Pro-Sys Consultants Ltd v Microsoft Corp [2013] SCC 57:

“In my view, the expert methodology must be sufficiently credible or plausible to establish some basis in fact for the commonality requirement. This means that the methodology must offer a realistic prospect of establishing loss on a class-wide basis so that, if the overcharge is eventually established at the trial of the common issues, there is a means by which to demonstrate that it is common to the class (i.e. that passing on has occurred). The methodology cannot be purely theoretical or hypothetical, but must be grounded in the facts of the particular case is question.”

The stumbling block for the claimants, however, was the CAT’s reasoning on the proper counterfactual. The claimants posited a world in which not only the 8 infringing vertical agreements were absent but also where Pride had operated no policy of prohibiting below-RRP advertising at all. The CAT, however, endorsed a narrower counterfactual from which only the specifically unlawful agreements (i.e. the 8 vertical agreements about which the OFT had made findings) were assumed to be absent (§112). With this narrower counterfactual, the CAT held that it was not clear whether there was sufficient commonality in the issues of loss, or whether the likely damages would justify the costs of collective proceedings. However, the CAT (again perhaps generously) did not dismiss the application altogether but rather adjourned it to enable the claimants’ expert to formulate a case on common loss on the basis of the revised counterfactual.

Notwithstanding the generally claimant-friendly approach, the CAT’s reasoning on the counterfactual could render other collective cases premised on vertical restraints very difficult in practice. In a large number of vertical restraint decisions, the infringer has adopted a market-wide policy but the regulator focuses, for practical reasons, on a small number of ‘implementations’ of the policy as the basis for its infringement findings. If one only excludes from the counterfactual the particular instances of unlawful implementation, rather than the more general policy which underlay them, the issues between class members may diverge: some will have been direct victims of the anti-competitive agreements, while others will have suffered only from what would have to be characterised as an “umbrella effect”. In addition, if claimants cannot proceed on the basis that the entire policy should be excluded from the counterfactual, the likely quantum may fall to a level where collective proceedings are not worth the candle. It remains to be seen whether the mobility scooter claimants will overcome these difficulties.

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