Legal Blog: Competition Laws : Powers and Functions of the Competition Commission of India : The Law

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Competition Laws : Powers and Functions of the Competition Commission of India : The Law

Swatanter Kumar
The Supreme Court has examined and explained the Law relating to Competition in India. The Bench comprising the Chief Justice of India, Justice Swatanter Kumar and Justice KS Radhakrishnan has discussed in great detail the law of competition, its aims and objectives, as understood around the world. The Bench observed as under;
The decision of the Government of India to liberalize its economy with the intention of removing controls persuaded the Indian Parliament to enact laws providing for checks and balances in the free economy. The laws were required to be enacted, primarily, for the objective of taking measures to avoid anti-competitive agreements and abuse of dominance as well as to regulate mergers and takeovers which result in distortion of the market. The earlier Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1969 was not only found to be inadequate but also obsolete in certain respects, particularly, in the light of international economic developments relating to competition law. Most countries in the world have enacted competition laws to protect their free market economies- an economic system in which the allocation of resources is determined solely by supply and demand. The rationale of free market economy is that the competitive offers of different suppliers allow the buyers to make the best purchase. The motivation of each participant in a free market economy is to maximize self-interest but the result is favourable to society. As Adam Smith observed: "there is an invisible hand at work to take care of this".
As far as American law is concerned, it is said that the Sherman Act, 1890, is the first codification of recognized common law principles of competition law. With the progress of time, even there the competition law has attained new dimensions with the enactment of subsequent laws, like the Clayton Act, 1914, the Federal Trade Commission Act, 1914 and the Robinson-Patman Act, 1936. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, introduced the considerably less stringent Restrictive Practices Act, 1956, but later on more elaborate legislations like the Competition Act, 1998 and the Enterprise Act, 2002 were introduced. Australia introduced its current Trade Practices Act in 1974. The overall intention of competition law policy has not changed markedly over the past century. Its intent is to limit the role of market power that might result from substantial concentration in a particular industry. The major concern with monopoly and similar kinds of concentration is not that being big is necessarily undesirable. However, because of the control exerted by a monopoly over price, there are economic efficiency losses to society and product quality and diversity may also be affected. Thus, there is a need to protect competition. The primary purpose of competition law is to remedy some of those situations where the activities of one firm or two lead to the breakdown of the free market system, or, to prevent such a breakdown by laying down rules by which rival businesses can compete with each other. The model of perfect competition is the `economic model' that usually comes to an economist's mind when thinking about the competitive markets. As far as the objectives of competition laws are concerned, they vary from country to country and even within a country they seem to change and evolve over the time. However, it will be useful to refer to some of the common objectives of competition law. The main objective of competition law is to promote economic efficiency using competition as one of the means of assisting the creation of market responsive to consumer preferences. The advantages of perfect competition are three- fold: allocative efficiency, which ensures the effective allocation of resources, productive efficiency, which ensures that costs of production are kept at a minimum and dynamic efficiency, which promotes innovative practices. These factors by and large have been accepted all over the world as the guiding principles for effective implementation of competition law.
In India, a High Level Committee on Competition Policy and Law was constituted to examine its various aspects and make suggestions keeping in view the competition policy of India. This Committee made recommendations and submitted its report on 22nd of May, 2002. After completion of the consultation process, the Competition Act, 2002 (for short, the `Act') as Act 12 of 2003, dated 12th December, 2003, was enacted. As per the statement of objects and reasons, this enactment is India's response to the opening up of its economy, removing controls and resorting to liberalization. The natural corollary of this is that the Indian market should be geared to face competition from within the country and outside. The Bill sought to ensure fair competition in India by prohibiting trade practices which cause appreciable adverse effect on the competition in market within India and for this purpose establishment of a quasi judicial body was considered essential. The other object was to curb the negative aspects of competition through such a body namely, the `Competition Commission of India' (for short, the `Commission') which has the power to perform different kinds of functions, including passing of interim orders and even awarding compensation and imposing penalty. The Director General appointed under Section 16(1) of the Act is a specialized investigating wing of the Commission. In short, the establishment of the Commission and enactment of the Act was aimed at preventing practices having adverse effect on competition, to protect the interest of the consumer and to ensure fair trade carried out by other participants in the market in India and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
The various provisions of the Act deal with the establishment, powers and functions as well as discharge of adjudicatory functions by the Commission. Under the scheme of the Act, this Commission is vested with inquisitorial, investigative, regulatory, adjudicatory and to a limited extent even advisory jurisdiction. Vast powers have been given to the Commission to deal with the complaints or information leading to invocation of the provisions of Sections 3 and 4 read with Section 19 of the Act. In exercise of the powers vested in it under Section 64, the Commission has framed Regulations called The Competition Commission of India (General) Regulations, 2009 (for short, the `Regulations'). The Act and the Regulations framed thereunder clearly indicate the legislative intent of dealing with the matters related to contravention of the Act, expeditiously and even in a time bound programme. Keeping in view the nature of the controversies arising under the provisions of the Act and larger public interest, the matters should be dealt with and taken to the logical end of pronouncement of final orders without any undue delay. In the event of delay, the very purpose and object of the Act is likely to be frustrated and the possibility of great damage to the open market and resultantly, country's economy cannot be ruled out. The present Act is quite contemporary to the laws presently in force in the United States of America as well as in the United Kingdom. In other words, the provisions of the present Act and Clayton Act, 1914 of the United States of America, The Competition Act, 1988 and Enterprise Act, 2002 of the United Kingdom have somewhat similar legislative intent and scheme of enforcement. However, the provisions of these Acts are not quite pari materia to the Indian legislation. In United Kingdom, the Office of Fair Trading is primarily regulatory and adjudicatory functions are performed by the Competition Commission and the Competition Appellate Tribunal. The U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division in United States, deals with all jurisdictions in the field. The competition laws and their enforcement in those two countries is progressive, applied rigorously and more effectively. The deterrence objective in these anti-trust legislations is clear from the provisions relating to criminal sanctions for individual violations, high upper limit for imposition of fines on corporate entities as well as extradition of individuals found guilty of formation of cartels. This is so, despite the fact that there are much larger violations of the provisions in India in comparison to the other two countries, where at the very threshold, greater numbers of cases invite the attention of the regulatory/adjudicatory bodies. Primarily, there are three main elements which are intended to be controlled by implementation of the provisions of the Act, which have been specifically dealt with under Sections 3, 4 and 6 read with Sections 19 and 26 to 29 of the Act. They are anti- competitive agreements, abuse of dominant position and regulation of combinations which are likely to have an appreciable adverse effect on competition. Thus, while dealing with respective contentions raised in the present appeal and determining the impact of the findings recorded by the Tribunal, it is necessary for us to keep these objects and background in mind.
The bench further dealt with the following important questions;
In order to examine the merit or otherwise of the contentions raised by the respective parties, it will be appropriate for us to formulate the following points for determination:--
1) Whether the directions passed by the Commission in exercise of its powers under Section 26(1) of the Act forming a prima facie opinion would be appealable in terms of Section 53A(1) of the Act?
2) What is the ambit and scope of power vested with the Commission under Section 26(1) of the Act and whether the parties, including the informant or the affected party, are entitled to notice or hearing, as a matter of right, at the preliminary stage of formulating an opinion as to the existence of the prima facie case?
3) Whether the Commission would be a necessary, or at least a proper, party in the proceedings before the Tribunal in an appeal preferred by any party?
4) At what stage and in what manner the Commission can exercise powers vested in it under Section 33 of the Act to pass temporary restraint orders?
5) Whether it is obligatory for the Commission to record reasons for formation of a prima facie opinion in terms of Section 26(1) of the Act?
6) What directions, if any, need to be issued by the Court to ensure proper compliance in regard to procedural requirements while keeping in mind the scheme of the Act and the legislative intent? 
Also to ensure that the procedural intricacies do not hamper in achieving the object of the Act, i.e., free market and competition. We would prefer to state our answers to the points of law argued before us at the very threshold. Upon pervasive analysis of the submissions made before us by the learned counsel appearing for the parties, we would provide our conclusions on the points noticed supra as follows:
1) In terms of Section 53A(1)(a) of the Act appeal shall lie only against such directions, decisions or orders passed by the Commission before the Tribunal which have been specifically stated under the provisions of Section 53A(1)(a). The orders, which have not been specifically made appealable, cannot be treated appealable by implication. For example taking a prima facie view and issuing a direction to the Director General for investigation would not be an order appealable under Section 53A.

2) Neither any statutory duty is cast on the Commission to issue notice or grant hearing, nor any party can claim, as a matter of right, notice and/or hearing at the stage of formation of opinion by the Commission, in terms of Section 26(1) of the Act that a prima facie case exists for issuance of a direction to the Director General to cause an investigation to be made into the matter.
However, the Commission, being a statutory body exercising, inter alia, regulatory jurisdiction, even at that stage, in its discretion and in appropriate cases may call upon the concerned party(s) to render required assistance or produce requisite information, as per its directive. The Commission is expected to form such prima facie view without entering upon any adjudicatory or determinative process. The Commission is entitled to form its opinion without any assistance from any quarter or even with assistance of experts or others. The Commission has the power in terms of Regulation 17 (2) of the Regulations to invite not only the information provider but even `such other person' which would include all persons, even the affected parties, as it may deem necessary. In that event it shall be `preliminary conference', for whose conduct of business the Commission is entitled to evolve its own procedure.
3) The Commission, in cases where the inquiry has been initiated by the Commission suo moto, shall be a necessary party and in all other cases the Commission shall be a proper party in the proceedings before the Competition Tribunal. The presence of the Commission before the Tribunal would help in complete adjudication and effective and expeditious disposal of matters. Being an expert body, its views would be of appropriate assistance to the Tribunal. Thus, the Commission in the proceedings before the Tribunal would be a necessary or a proper party, as the case may be.
4) During an inquiry and where the Commission is satisfied that the act is in contravention of the provisions stated in Section 33 of the Act, it may issue an order temporarily restraining the party from carrying on such act, until the conclusion of such inquiry or until further orders without giving notice to such party, where it deems it necessary. This power has to be exercised by the Commission sparingly and under compelling and exceptional circumstances. The Commission, while recording a reasoned order inter alia should : (a) record its satisfaction (which has to be of much higher degree than formation of a prima facie view under Section 26(1) of the Act) in clear terms that an act in contravention of the stated provisions has been committed and continues to be committed or is about to be committed; (b) It is necessary to issue order of restraint and (c) from the record before the Commission, it is apparent that there is every likelihood of the party to the lis, suffering irreparable and irretrievable damage or there is definite apprehension that it would have adverse effect on competition in the market.
The power under Section 33 of the Act to pass temporary restraint order can only be exercised by the Commission when it has formed prima facie opinion and directed investigation in terms of Section 26(1) of the Act, as is evident from the language of this provision read with Regulation 18(2) of the Regulations.
5) In consonance with the settled principles of administrative jurisprudence, the Commission is expected to record at least some reason even while forming a prima facie view. However, while passing directions and orders dealing with the rights of the parties in its adjudicatory and determinative capacity, it is required of the Commission to pass speaking orders, upon due application of mind, responding to all the contentions raised before it by the rival parties.
The Bench further observed that;
The scheme of the Act and the Regulations framed thereunder clearly demonstrate the legislative intent that the investigations and inquiries under the provisions of the Act should be concluded as expeditiously as possible. The various provisions and the Regulations, particularly Regulations 15 and 16, direct conclusion of the investigation/inquiry or proceeding within a "reasonable time". The concept of "reasonable time" thus has to be construed meaningfully, keeping in view the object of the Act and the larger interest of the domestic and international trade. In this backdrop, we are of the considered view that the following directions need to be issued:
A) Regulation 16 prescribes limitation of 15 days for the Commission to hold its first ordinary meeting to consider whether prima facie case exists or not and in cases of alleged anti-competitive agreements and/or abuse of dominant position, the opinion on existence of prima facie case has to be formed within 60 days. Though the time period for such acts of the Commission has been specified, still it is expected of the Commission to hold its meetings and record its opinion about existence or otherwise of a prima facie case within a period much shorter than the stated period.
B) All proceedings, including investigation and inquiry should be completed by the Commission/Director General most expeditiously and while ensuring that the time taken in completion of such proceedings does not adversely affect any of the parties as well as the open market in purposeful implementation of the provisions of the Act.
C) Wherever during the course of inquiry the Commission exercises its jurisdiction to pass interim orders, it should pass a final order in that behalf as expeditiously as possible and in any case not later than 60 days.
D) The Director General in terms of Regulation 20 is expected to submit his report within a reasonable time. No inquiry by the Commission can proceed any further in absence of the report by the Director General in terms of Section 26(2) of the Act. The reports by the Director General should be submitted within the time as directed by the Commission but in all cases not later than 45 days from the date of passing of directions in terms of Section 26(1) of the Act.
E) The Commission as well as the Director General shall maintain complete `confidentiality' as envisaged under Section 57 of the Act and Regulation 35 of the Regulations. Wherever the `confidentiality' is breached, the aggrieved party certainly has the right to approach the Commission for issuance of appropriate directions in terms of the provisions of the Act and the Regulations in force.
Find the Entire Judgment in Competition Commission Of India vs Steel Authority Of India & Anr.here.

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