SOUTH AFRICA COMPETITION LAW: NEW REGULATIONS RE ACCESS TO RECORD

By Charl van der Merwe

The South African Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel (Minister) last week published the amended Regulation 15 of the Rules for the Conduct of Proceedings in the Competition Commission. The amended regulation is effective from date of publication being 25 January 2019.

The amended Regulation 15 has the effect of restricting access to the Commission’s record and preventing litigants from accessing the Commission’s record for purposes of preparing its defence in a legal matter before any court or administrative body (i.e. the Competition Tribunal).

In terms of the old Rule 15, any person had the right to request access to the Commission’s record, subject to certain rules regarding confidentiality and legal privilege. This led to various cases being brought before the Competition Tribunal and ultimately the Competition Appeal Court (CAC) where respondents requested access to the Commission’s record, prior to pleading and prior to discovery.

Issues regarding the proper interpretation of the old Rule 15 was finally settled by the CAC in the Standard Bank of South Africa Limited v the Competition Commission of South Africa (160/CAC/Nov17) case a mere four months prior to the Minister publishing the draft amended Regulation 15.  See AAT exclusive here

In summary, the CAC in Standard Bank confirmed its earlier judgement in the Group 5 case and held that any member of the public (regardless of whether it is also a litigant/respondent in proceedings before the Tribunal) must be granted access to the Commission’s record within a ‘reasonable time’. The CAC made clear that a member of the public’s right to access the Commission’s record should not be prejudiced by the fact that such an applicant is also a litigant.

Furthermore, the CAC also rejected the Commission’s argument that a reasonable time for purposes of producing its record to a litigant would be at the time of discovery (after pleadings have closed).

The amended Regulation 15 in direct conflict with the CAC’s ruling and further states that any record obtained in a manner that contravenes the Regulation 15 (i.e. in that the record was requested by and provided to a litigant) will not be admissible as evidence unless the court or administrative body finds that the exclusion of the record would be against the interests of justice.

In order to ensure compliance with the right to access to information in the Constitution, the amended Regulation 15 states that a litigant may request access or the production of the record through means of any other laws or rules of any court, including the Tribunal.

The Tribunal Rules deal only with information which has been submitted to the Tribunal and will not contain the Commission’s record prior to discovery (which is when the Commission contents a record must be made available to the respondents).

Furthermore, requiring a litigant to request access to the Commission’s record through means of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2002 (PAIA) is simply a shifting of the goalpost, effectively by passing the Competition Tribunal and CAC (which is bound by the CAC’s prior legal precedent). In terms of PAIA an individual or organisation (requester) must apply (by way of a specific form) to the relevant government body. If refused, the applicant must then request an internal appeal (which must be concluded within 30 days) and, only after the applicant has exhausted the internal appeal procedure, may the applicant apply to the High Court for access to the record.

The amended Regulation 15, therefore, effectively means that a litigant must now apply to the High Court (as opposed to the specialist Competition Tribunal and CAC) for access to the Commission’s record in instances where it is a litigant/respondent and where the Commission refuses to allow the litigant/respondent access to its record.

According to competition lawyer Michael-James Currie, while the amendment to Rule 15 is clearly motivated to preclude litigants accessing the Commission’s record prior to pleading, what is less clear is why granting litigants access to their record is such a contentious aspect from the Commission’s perspective. Presumably, the Commission  only refers cases for prosecution once it is in possession of sufficient evidence to sustain the allegations (at least on a prima facie basis). A respondent may, therefore, be better placed to gauge whether to oppose a complaint referral or settle the complaint referral once it has been provided with access to the record. This, says Currie, would go a long way to ensuring matters are resolved expeditiously as opposed to protracted litigation – particularly when the respondents’ representatives and decision makers have no knowledge of the alleged conduct or the conduct is historic, as firms are generally reluctant to settle a case unless they are fully aware of the evidence against it. Providing access to the Commission’s record would more likely result in the expeditious resolution of cases as opposed to being exploited by respondents. It will also ensure that the level of investigatory work is of the highest standard if respondents are granted access to the record prior to pleading.

Whether there are any constitutional challenges to the Regulations remains to be seen.

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