Criminalisation of antitrust offences: not on short-term horizon


Competition Commission not ready to pursue antitrust cases criminally – plus: AAT‘s recommendations

The newly (permanently) appointed Competition Commissioner, Tembinkosi Bonakele, has referred to a “phased” implementation of the 2009 Competition Amendment Act.  The legislation technically criminalised hard-core antitrust offences such as bid-rigging or price-fixing cartels.  However, it has not yet been implemented or effectively signed into law.

According to a MoneyWeb/ZA report, both he and his boss, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, had discussions on how and when to implement “to ensure that the necessary institutional capacity is available to apply the amendments.”  The initially effective provisions (relating to the SACC’s market-inquiry powers) went into effect last year, while the criminalisation provisions remain unimplemented.

In a somewhat remarkable and prudent self-assessment, the minister and SACC have now admitted that the Commission currently lacks “the institutional capacity needed to comply with the higher burden of proof in criminal cases,” according to the report.

One notable aspect of potential discord lies in not only in the different standard of proof in civil vs. criminal matters (“more probable than not” vs. “beyond a reasonable doubt”), but perhaps more importantly can be found on the procedural side, preventing rapid implementation of the law: There has been historic friction between various elements of the RSA’s police forces and (special) prosecutorial services, and the power to prosecute crimes notably remains within the hands of the National Prosecuting Authority, supported in its investigations by the South African Police Service.

Historical and Legislative Background – and a bit of Advice

Starting in the spring and summer of 2008, the rumoured legislative clamp-down on corrupt & anti-competitive business practices by the government made the RSA business papers’ headlines.

During a presentation I gave at a Johannesburg conference in September that year (“Criminalising Competition Law: A New Era of ‘Antitrust with Teeth’ in South Africa? Lessons Learned from the U.S. Perspective“), I quoted a few highlights among them, asking somewhat rhetorically whether these were the words of fearmongers or oracles?

  • “Competition Bill to Pave Way for Criminal Liability”
  • “Tough on directors”
  • “Criminalisation of directors by far most controversial”
  • “Bosses Must Pay Fines Themselves”
  • “New leniency regime to turn up heat on cartels”
  • “New era in the application of competition policy in SA”
  • “Likely to give rise to constitutional challenges”
  • “New Bill On Cartels is a Step Too Far”
  • “Fork out huge sums or face jail time if found guilty”
  • “Disqualification from directorships … very career limiting”

I also quoted international precedent-setting institutions and enforcers’ recommendations, all of which tended towards the positive effect of criminal antitrust penalties:

OECD, 3rd Hard-Core Cartel Report (2005):

  • Recommends that governments consider the introduction and imposition of criminal antitrust sanctions against individuals to enhance deterrence and incentives to cooperate through leniency programmes.

U.S. Department of Justice, Tom Barnett (2008):

  • “Jail time creates the most effective, necessary deterrent.”
  • “[N]othing in our enforcement arsenal has as great a deterrent as the threat of substantial jail time in a United States prison, either as a result of a criminal trial or a guilty plea.”

While the presentation contained a lot more detail, the key recommendations that I summarised would seem to continue to hold true today, and may serve as guide-posts for Commissioner Bonakele and the EDD ministry:

Cornerstones of a successful criminal antitrust regime
  • Crystal-clear demarcation of criminal vs. civil conduct
  • Highly effective leniency policy also applies to individuals
  • Standard of proof must be met beyond a reasonable doubt
  • No blanket liability for negligent directors – only actors liable
  • Plea bargaining to be used as an effective tool to reduce sentence
  • Clear pronouncements by enforcement agency to help counsel predict outcomes
Demarcation of criminal vs civil antitrust conduct in U.S.
Demarcation of criminal vs civil antitrust conduct in U.S.

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