By Michael-James Currie
In April 2016, the Namibian Competition Commission (NaCC) finalised its guidelines on restrictive practices (Guidelines) in terms of chapter three of the Namibian Competition Act. The Guidelines focus in particular on the investigatory powers and procedures to be utilised by the NaCC during its investigations into restrictive practices.
The Namibian Competition Act contains most of the traditional antitrust prohibitions in relation to restrictive conduct. These include ‘agreements’ or ‘concerted practices’ between firms in a horizontal or vertical relationship which have the “object” or “effect” of substantially lessening competition in the market.
The Competition Act does not, from a plain reading of the language, impose a per se prohibition for ‘hardcore’ cartel conduct. The Guidelines, however, confirm that certain practices such as ‘hardcore cartel conduct’ and ‘minimum resale price maintenance’ will be considered per se to be anticompetitive. It is unclear, however, whether this per se contravention should rather serve as a presumption that the conduct is anti-competitive which may affect the onus of proof, rather, as in the South African context where the Act makes it clear that the effect of hardcore cartel conduct is irrelevant.
Furthermore, there is no express provision which deals with ‘rule of reason’ defences, however, the Guidelines confirm that efficiency or pro-competitive features of the alleged anti-competitive conduct, may outweigh any anti-competitive effect. It should be noted, however, that even if there was no anti-competitive effect, if the objective of the conduct was to engage in an anti-competitive agreement or concerted practice, a respondent may still be liable. Accordingly, conduct must not only be shown not to have an anti-competitive effect, but must also be properly ‘characterised’ as not being anti-competitive, in order to avoid liability.
The Namibian Competition Act also prohibits abuse of dominance conduct. The Act does not contain thresholds or criteria for deterring when a firm would be considered ‘dominant’, however, in term of the Competition Commission’s Rules, a firm:
- will be considered dominant if it has above a 45% market share;
- will be presumed dominant if it has between 35-45% market share (unless it can show it does not have market power); or
- has a market share of less than 35%, but has market power.
Although the abuse of dominant provision is intended to prohibit a broad range of potential anti-competitive conduct, the Act in particular, notes the following conduct which, if a firm is dominant, is restricted:
- “directly or indirectly imposing unfair purchase or selling prices or other unfair trading conditions;
- limiting or restricting production, market outlets or market access, investment, technical development or technological progress;
- applying dissimilar conditions to equivalent transactions with other trading parties; and
- making the conclusion of contracts subject to acceptance by other parties of supplementary conditions which by their nature or according to commercial usage have no connection with the subject-matter of the contracts.”
Importantly, the Namibian Competition Act does not state that the conduct identified above must lead to a substantial-lessening of competition in the market. Furthermore, in terms of the Guidelines, the NaCC not only considers the conduct of and individual firm, but also considers the conduct of a “number of connected undertakings acting collectively” for purposes of considering whether there has been an “abuse of dominance”.
It should be noted that the Namibian Competition Act does cater for exemptions from the application of Chapter 3 (i.e. restrictive practices) and sets out in some detail the requirements and terms upon which an exemption may be granted.
As noted above, however, the most elements contained in the Guidelines relate to the NaCC’s investigatory powers.
In terms of the Namibian Competition Act, the NaCC may initiate a complaint or may elect to investigate a third party complaint.
The NaCC‘s investigatory powers include the power to conduct search and seizure operations. Importantly, the NaCC may take into possession any evidence which, in its opinion, will assist in the investigation. This is so even if such evidence would not be admissible as evidence in a court of law. For purposes of obtaining witness statements, however, a witness has the same rights and privileges as a witness before a court of law.
The Guidelines also confirm that the NaCC is not entitled to peruse or seize “legally privileged” documents unless privilege is waived. Interestingly, the Guidelines do not appear to protect communication between in-house legal and the firm and refers to legally privileged communication as that between “lawyer and client” only.
Search and seizure operations must be conducted in terms of a valid search warrant.
The Guidelines also contains further guidance on various topics and caters for a number of procedural aspects which must be adhered to (as well as the prescribed forms which should be utilised in certain circumstances) in relation to, inter alia the following:
- initiating complaint;
- applying for an exemption;
- requesting an advisory opinion;
- handling and the use of ‘confidential information’;
The Guidelines is no doubt a stern indication that the NaCC is preparing to heighten its intensity in terms of investigating and prosecuting restrictive practices. Since inception, the NaCC has dealt with over 450 merger cases, but has only handled approximately 40 restrictive practice complaints.
Furthermore, and in line with the NaCC’s newly adopted 5 year ‘Strategic Plan (2015-2020), the NaCC is growing in confidence and competence and firms should be aware that the NaCC will look to utilise the dawn raids provisions when necessary.