[The editors at AfricanAntitrust wish to thank Jemma Muller and Gina Lodolo for compiling this article]
On 3 April 2020, Minister Ebrahim Patel made amendments to section 27(2) of the Competition Act 89 of 1998 (“the Act”) with regards to the regulations pertaining to the functions of the Competition Tribunal (“the Tribunal”).
The amendment was enacted to regulate complaint referrals for alleged contravention of section 8(1)(a) of the Act which deals with the charging of excessive prices by a dominant firm. The amendment is crucial in light of the current state of affairs, where the charging of excessive prices has become more frequent during the Covid-19 outbreak. Accordingly, the amendment is only applicable for the duration of the period of the declaration of a Natural State of Disaster with regards to COVID-19.
An applicant who wishes to bring a complaint based on an alleged contravention of section 8(1)(a) of the Act, read with the Consumer and Customer Protection Regulations, must file a Notice of Motion and founding affidavit to the Tribunal.
Urgent complaint referral procedure
Who must file the complaint referral?
A complaint referral may be filed by the Commission or a complainant, as soon as possible after the commission has issued a notice of non-referral to that complainant.
Notice of motion requirements
An applicant must allege a contravention of section 8(1)(a), indicate the order sought against the respondent(s) and state the name and and address (electronic or otherwise) of each respondent in respect to whom the order is sought. Applicant’s may also state the date and time on which the applicant wishes the matter to be heard by the Tribunal.
The founding affidavit must set out the grounds of urgency and the material points of law and evidence that support the complaint. In addition, the applicant may include confirmatory affidavits from any factual or expert witnesses.
The applicant must serve a copy of the Notice of Motion and founding affidavit on each of the respondent(s) named in the Notice of Motion and file a copy of the application with the Tribunal.
The important time periods:
A respondent must serve a copy of their Answering Affidavit on the complainant within 72 hours of service of the complaint referral. Thereafter the person who filed the Complaint referral may serve a copy for their Reply within 24 hours after being served with a copy of the Answering Affidavit.
The Tribunal will then determine the date and time for the hearing of the complaint referral (Tribunal Rules 6,16,17,18,18,47,54 and 55 apply to an application under this Rule unless they pertain to Rules which stipulate time-frames).
These documents may be filed electronically.
The Tribunal may direct that the urgent complaint proceedings in terms of the Rules may be conducted wholly as video or audio proceedings.
If no answering affidavit is filed within the period set out in the Notice of Motion or such extended period as may be determined by the Tribunal, the urgent complaint referral may be heard on an unopposed basis.
The Tribunal will determine if there was contravention of section 8(1)(a) of the Act based on the evidence contained in the affidavits unless there is a substantial dispute of fact which cannot be resolved by affidavits. In this case the Tribunal may determine an expedited procedure (which may include oral evidence on an expedited basis by way of video or audio proceedings). The Tribunal may also call for further evidence if it is required (subject to section 55 of the Act).
The Tribunal may impose a pricing order if the respondent has been found to contravene section 8(1)(a) of the Act. The respondent may apply to appeal or review the decision on an urgent basis to the Competition Appeal Court (the pricing order will remain in force unless it is set aside by the court on appeal or review).
The Commission may at any time (before, during and after and investigation) conclude a consent agreement for a complaint under section 8(1)(a) of the Act and it will be the full and final settlement of the matter (including settlement of civil proceedings). This consent order may be confirmed by the Tribunal without hearing any evidence.
The amended complaint referral procedures equip complainants with the means in which to assist the competition authorities in penalizing those who have used the prevailing circumstances to exploit consumers, and is thus a commendable and efficient tool invoked by the Minister.