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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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Filed under Penalties, Procedure, Regulatory

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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Filed under Agreements, Procedure

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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Filed under Agreements, Procedure

To fight or not to fight: pharmaceutical patent settlements

On 19 April 2013, the OFT announced that it had issued a Statement of Objections following its investigation into patent litigation settlement agreements (PLSAs) in the pharmaceutical sector.  The underlying factual complaint related to GlaxoSmithKline’s alleged conduct in defence of one of its blockbuster drugs, Seroxat, which is a prominent anti-depressant (paroxetine). The central allegation is that GSK concluded PLSAs with three generics companies – Alpharma Limited (Alpharma), Generics (UK) Limited (GUK) and Norton Healthcare Limited (IVAX) – which had sought to compete with their own paroxetine medicines. It is alleged that at particular points between 2001 and 2004, GSK sought to challenge its competitors’ entry into the market by threatening or instigating patent litigation. It then concluded the agreements which offered financial sums in exchange for the generics’ commitment not to supply paroxetine independently for a relevant period within the patent protection of Seroxat – although they were able to do so before this protection had ended. Continue reading

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Filed under Abuse, Agreements, IP, Pharmaceuticals

The OFT’s tobacco decision: Is it dead yet?

Late in 2011, the Office of Fair Trading was forced to concede before the Competition Appeal Tribunal that it could no longer defend the theory of harm contained in its Decision on alleged pricing agreements between tobacco manufacturers and retailers.

However, the OFT refused to simply give up, and instead tried to persuade the CAT to allow it to run a new case. One of the barristers before the CAT (step forward Dinah Rose QC) described the OFT’s new case as “Frankenstein”, a corpse stitched together from components of the abandoned Decision. She invited the CAT to bury the corpse. It duly did so: the OFT was not allowed to run a new case, and the Appellants succeeded in their appeals.

The OFT’s original Decision, however, was not quite dead. Continue reading

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Filed under Agreements, Procedure

Back to school for the OFT?

On 25 October 2012 the Office of Fair Trading announced that it had written to the head teachers of almost 30,000 State schools to draw attention to the high price of school uniforms. The high price is caused in part by  74% of schools requiring parents to purchase uniforms from a single, named retailer or from the school itself. This has created a captive market for chosen suppliers, allowing them to charge an additional £52 million per year (see para 2.3 of the OFT’s 2006 school uniforms review).

The October 2012 letter advises schools either to cease specifying from whom uniforms may be obtained, or to award the right to supply on a basis that takes into account the cost to parents. The letter does not specify what the OFT will do if the schools fail to comply, but I want to suggest that action against the schools is possible under the Competition Act 1998. Continue reading

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Anyone for another round? The Court of Appeal’s nuanced approach to the duty of “sincere cooperation”.

The duty of “sincere cooperation” set out in Article 4(3) TEU requires Member States to take appropriate measures to “ensure fulfillment of the obligations arising out of the Treaties or resulting from the acts of the institutions of the Union” as well as to “refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives“. When and in what way are Member State authorities required to act – or desist from acting – in order to comply with this duty?

This was the key issue in two cases decided this year regarding EU and national merger control (Ryanair Plc v OFT [2012] EWCA Civ 643 and Ryanair Plc v Competition Commission [2012] EWCA Civ 1632). Continue reading

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