By Ruth Mosoti, Esq.
The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK, or the Authority) issued a public notice to members of professional associations who are seeking to set minimum chargeable fees for their members notifying them that they need to comply with the provisions of the Competition Act. The Competition Act (the Act) provides for parties to file an application for an exemption on behalf of any association whose agreements may contravene the Act. Notably, the determination of an exemption application factors in public-interest considerations. In addition to this, when an exemption is granted, the same is not perpetual the period of validity of the exemption is at the discretion of the Authority.
Regulation of professional bodies is governed by different sources under Kenyan law. This can occur either through statutory law or rules issued by the professional bodies themselves. In Kenya we have professional bodies regulated by statute and others are wholly self-regulatory. This in turn brings in the issue of self-regulation and regulation by statute. As such, if a professional body is allowed by law to prescribe fees applicable for certain services offered by members of that association. Therefore, in such an instance then the Authority cannot fault such an association because the actions of the association are sanctioned by the law. In such an instance, the correct course of action would be the Authority to first seek intervention from the courts to declare such activities authorized by the law as unlawful and if successful, then any future activities of the association that involve the prescription of fees will be subject to an exemption application.
In 2017, the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya (ICPAK) made an exemption application in regard to prescribing of fees charged by its members and the same was rejected by the Authority. Following the rejection of their application ICPAK has opted to bypass the Authority and has begun to push for the prescription of the fees through the law and in 2020, they published the proposed remuneration order. Similarly in 2020, the Engineers through the Engineers board of Kenya also have the draft scale of fees for professional engineering services.
As mentioned above, there is the issue of self-regulation versus regulation by statute. Relevant Kenyan law includes the Statutory Instruments Act, which provides for the making, scrutiny, publication and operation of statutory instruments. Statutory instruments include but are not limited to rules, guidelines or by-laws made in execution of a power conferred by an existing statute. It is important to mention the Statutory Instruments Act because under this law, all statutory instruments are required to carry out consultations with the Authority to establish whether the proposed instrument restricts competition. It is however unclear whether the opinion of the Authority matters because despite complying with this requirement. What would be interesting to watch for now is whether ICPAK is successful in its quest for setting of professional fees there being a gazette notice where the CAK rejected its exemption application over the same subject matter.
Associations that self-regulate fall squarely within the jurisdiction of the CAK and that is why the Authority has in the past successfully pursued contraventions by trade associations like in 2016, the association members in the advertising industry who were involved in price fixing were penalized. This can be compared to the activities of the Law Society of Kenya which are governed by statutes which empower it to recommend to the Chief Justice fees to be charged in relation to certain services offered by its members.
In conclusion, while the CAK may be justified in its quest to reign in the behavior of professional associations that are engaged in conduct that may amount to price-fixing, there needs to be a balance in the approach the CAK takes, where protection of fair remuneration is taken into account while preventing what would amount to abusive conduct. That being said, the CAK should also consider challenging the other laws that are in place that allow the professional associations to engage in conduct that it believes should be subject to an exemption application.