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  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.