Competition Appeal Court’s Ruling in Standard Bank Case: A Changing of the Tides?

Threat of Referral no Longer an Arrow in the Commission’s Quiver?

By AAT Senior Contributor Michael-James Currie

In the first week of June 2018, the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) upheld Standard Bank’s appeal and ordered that the Competition Commission (Commission) make available its investigation record to Standard Bank. Standard Bank is a respondent in the Commission’s ForEx investigation.

Standard Bank had requested that the Commission make available its record in terms of Rule 15 of the Competition Commission Rules. Rule 15 permits any member of the public to request access to the Commission’s non-confidential record. Standard Bank therefore brought its application in terms of Rule 15 not on the basis of it being a respondent to the Commission’s investigation but as an ordinary member of the public.

Although the CAC had in an earlier case, Group 5, set out the correct interpretation and application of Rule 15 and stated that:

  1. the Commission is obliged in terms of Rule 15 to make available its record of investigation;
  2. that the Commission must do so within a “reasonable time”; and
  3. that the Commission must disregard the applicants status as a litigant when determining what a reasonable time is.

The Tribunal in the Standard Bank case, however, deviated from the CAC’s binding decision in Group 5 and held that the Commission would only need to make its record available to Standard Bank at the time of discovery.

Accordingly, the CAC in the Standard Bank case found that the Tribunal took Standard Bank’s status as a litigant into account when assessing what a reasonable time would be by which the Commission was obliged to make available its record to Standard Bank. The CAC in Standard Bank confirmed that although the Tribunal is not bound by the stare decisis principle in relation to its own decisions, the Tribunal is bound by the CAC’s decisions. The Tribunal’s decision in Standard Bank was inconsistent with the CAC’s earlier decision in the Group 5 case – where the CAC expressly stated that there is no rational basis for linking the production of the Commission’s record with discovery proceedings. The Tribunal’s departure from the CAC’s earlier precedent was noted with concern by the CAC in Standard Bank.

The Commission argued – as justification for not producing its record – that Standard Bank was abusing its position as a litigant. In this regard, the CAC expressly rejected this argument and held that simply because a plaintiff would be better placed to plead its case after receiving the Commission’s record that, in of itself, does not amount to an abuse of process. The CAC held that it would only amount to an abuse of process if an applicant sought to rely on Rule 15 in order to avoid or delay having to plead within the prescribed time periods.

Furthermore, the CAC reaffirmed that a member of the public’s right to access the Commission’s record should not be prejudiced by the fact that such a member is also a litigant.

The Court’s Standard Bank decision is important as respondents will invariably be inclined to seek access to the Commission’s record prior to pleading their case. This may have a material impact on the Commission’s settlement strategy as respondents in settlement negotiations with the Commission are likely to request the Commission’s record in order to assess the strength of the Commission’s case against it before deciding whether to settle the case or not – thereby compelling the Commission to ensure that a robust investigation is conducted prior to entering into settlement negotiations with respondents.

Says John Oxenham, ‘the “threat of a referral” is unlikely to present the Commission with the same negotiating leverage as it may otherwise have enjoyed when respondents were kept in the dark as to the evidence which the Commission may have against them.’

Whether this all plays out in practice remains to be seen although any decision which promotes transparency and legal certainty can only be positive. It is for this reason that the CAC’s express criticism of the Tribunal’s decision to depart from established case precedent is particularly noteworthy as it is a stark reminder to all adjudicative bodies of the importance of adhering to the rule of law.

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