These detailed notes support, and should be read in conjunction with, my main note on Regulatory Appeals.
The Pay TV Saga
- Beginning in 2007, Ofcom undertook three rounds of consultation on the issue of whether Sky was restricting the wholesale supply of premium sports channels to other Pay TV providers in a manner that was prejudicial to "fair and effective competition" in the Pay TV market.
- Having concluded its investigation and consultations, Ofcom produced a "Pay TV Statement" of over 500 pages in March 2010.
- Sky appealed the conclusions of that Statement. The CAT hearing lasted from May to July 2011.
- The CAT did not hand down its 330 page decision until August 2012. Ofcom won on all points except for their interpretation of the facts, which the CAT found insupportable. It was not clear, to outside observers, whether the Tribunal really believed that they were reaching the right decision, or whether they felt they could not overcome the deficiencies of a badly worked up case?
- Both sides appealed to the Court of Appeal who decided in February 2014 that - although it was constrained to accept the CAT's statement of facts (see further below):
- (1) [It was] quite satisfied that in the judgment the CAT misconstrued the Statement by failing to appreciate the importance of Ofcom's conclusion that the rate-card price and the effect of the penetration discounts that were proposed by Sky themselves gave rise to "competition concerns". (2) This issue was before the CAT as is clear from the Notice of Appeal and Defence. Moreover, Miss Rose had made it clear during her submissions to the CAT that this was a separate, if supporting point, that Ofcom was making. (3) Therefore, even if the "crucial finding of fact" was that Sky deliberately withheld wholesale supply of its premium channels, Ofcom had found this independent competition concern and that it had to be dealt with by the CAT on appeal. (4) The failure of the CAT correctly to interpret the Statement or to deal with the rate-card price and penetration discount issues has the consequence that it is unclear whether, despite the findings of fact that the CAT has made in favour of Sky, there remain significant, independent, competition concerns based on the rate-card price and penetration discount, as found by Ofcom in the Statement. (5) The reasons that the CAT gave for not considering that matter further were inadequate.
- In [the court's] view these amount to errors of law which must mean that the judgment cannot be upheld, for two reasons. First, the CAT has thereby failed to deal with the appeal to it "on the merits". Secondly, its conclusion and order that the WMO remedy must be set aside was based on an incomplete set of conclusions. It had not adequately considered whether that remedy was justified on the basis of Ofcom's "competition concerns" arising out of the rate-card price and the penetration discounts. The only way in which this error can satisfactorily be dealt with is for the order of the CAT of 6 March 2013 to be set aside and for the matter to be remitted to the CAT for further consideration, findings and conclusions.
- It looked, therefore, as though there would be yet another CAT hearing, another CAT decision and no doubt another appeal to the Court of Appeal. The final decision would then have been expected in 2016, nine years after Ofcom opened the case, during which time the Pay TV market had changed out of all recognition.
- But Ofcom withdrew its WMO (Wholesale Must Offer) requirement in 2015 only for BT to then appeal that decision to the CAT which decided in favour of Ofcom in December 2016. BT was denied leave to appeal and withdrew its action in 2017, now ten years from the beginning of the litigation.
The Chancellor's 2012 Autumn Statement document included these announcements:
Economic regulators - The Government will take steps to reduce the regulatory burden that might constrain infrastructure investment by reviewing the appeals system for sector regulators to make appeals faster and more efficient ..
Reforming appeals of economic regulator decisions - The Government will reform the regulatory and competition appeals framework to support more streamlined regulatory decision-making, while providing appropriate rights of appeal. By summer 2013, the Government will consult on reforms, including:
- the grounds on which other regulatory appeals and appeals of competition decisions can be brought, to make them clearer and more consistent;
- streamlined processes and strengthened governance arrangements for the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) and Competition Service, and a full review of the CAT's rules;
- bringing greater consistency across sectors, for instance, on which appeal body hears each type of appeal;
- reducing opportunities to game the system, for instance by presenting new evidence during appeals; and
- introducing fast-track procedures to achieve quicker judgments in simple cases.
Here is the Foreword and Executive Summary of the consultation document published in June 2013:
"Streamlining Regulatory and Competition Appeals - Consultation on Options for Reform
Economic regulation and competition enforcement play a vital role in ensuring that markets operate for the benefit of consumers, and that firms are confident to invest and innovate. Firms and consumers need to have confidence that independent regulators and competition authorities are taking robust decisions in the interests of the wider economy and consumers. Appeals can provide a key route for holding regulators to account and giving parties a right of challenge.
While in many ways the UK's appeal regime is performing well, I believe we should be striving to make it even more efficient and effective, to support a world-class regulatory environment.
The UK is fortunate in having appeal bodies with expert knowledge and experience of reviewing economic regulation and competition decisions. The Competition Appeal Tribunal is frequently held up as a model in bringing together judicial scrutiny with expert knowledge of competition policy and economics. Similarly the Competition Commission has developed its practice of reviewing regulatory decisions over a long period, and has used this to good effect in scrutinising regulatory decisions across economic regulators.
At the same time, the Government is concerned that some appeals can be lengthy and expensive, increasing regulatory uncertainty. Appeals have developed in different ways across the various sectors for historic reasons, leading to a diverse range of appeal routes which does not make the best use of appeal bodies' expertise and can be confusing.
In the communications sector in particular, the Government is concerned that appeals may sometimes be seen as a one-way bet, and a chance to re-open regulatory decisions, encouraging lengthy and expensive litigation and holding back decision-making.
This consultation takes a broad look across regulatory and competition appeals, and invites views on the case for change and on a range of possible options for reforming appeals regimes.
In assessing these options, the Government is very conscious of the importance of maintaining and reinforcing regulatory certainty. The ultimate aim is to achieve better regulatory decisions, which are in the interests of the economy as a whole, and which firms in the market can have confidence in. The Government believes that proportionate changes to focus and streamline the appeals processes should help support regulators to take decisions more quickly and efficiently, providing greater certainty for firms. In deciding the way forward and reflecting on the responses to this consultation, the Government will be mindful to preserve the best features of the current regimes.
Effective economic regulation and competition enforcement is a key driver of growth. Firms need an independent, stable regulatory regime to give them confidence to invest, innovate and compete. This stability relies on regulators and competition authorities taking robust, timely decisions, setting out the ground rules for how markets operate and enforcing these rules effectively.
The right of firms to appeal regulatory and competition decisions is central to ensuring robust decision-making and holding regulators to account in the interests of justice. Where firms are materially affected by regulatory decisions, they should have an effective right of challenge if they consider that the regulator has made a mistake or has not acted reasonably.
In many ways the appeals regime works well. The UK has specialist appeal bodies with valuable experience and expertise, providing independent scrutiny of regulators' decisions. However, appeals inevitably create costs for firms and regulators and can act as a drag on decision-making. Concerns have been expressed that there are a significant number of appeals in some sectors, with relatively little downside risk to a firm from lodging an appeal. In other sectors there are few appeals. Even where there are few appeals, those that are brought are often lengthy and in turn, costly. There is a significant degree of diversity in the way these issues are handled across sectors in terms of which appeal bodies hear which types of appeal and the standards by which those appeals are decided.
The purpose of this consultation is to seek views on whether the appeals frameworks for regulatory and competition decisions strike the right balance between providing a proper right of challenge and allowing regulators and competition authorities to make decisions in a timely way. It also considers ways that appeals might be streamlined.
In assessing the case for change and options for reform, the Government's objectives for the appeals regime are to:
- Support independent, robust, predictable decision-making, minimising uncertainty.
- Provide proportionate regulatory accountability - the appeals framework needs to be able to correct mistakes made by a regulator and provide justice to parties, but allow the regulator to set a clear direction over time.
- Minimise the end-to-end length and cost of decision-making - partly through making the appeal process itself as streamlined and efficient as possible, but also by encouraging timely decision-making by the regulator or competition authority.
- Ensure access to justice is available to all firms and affected parties - not just to the largest regulated firms with the most resources and experience.
- Provide consistency, as far as possible, between appeal routes in different sectors - while acknowledging that the specific characteristics of each sector may require tailored approaches.
The appeals frameworks across different sectors have evolved over time, with the result that there is now a diverse range of appeal routes across the regulated sectors. Some of these differences reflect genuine differences in the nature of the decisions being made. This consultation seeks views on the case for streamlining the current appeals framework so that:
- It is more focused on identifying material errors;
- Appeal bodies' expertise is applied in the most appropriate way and appeal routes are more consistent across sectors, to provide greater certainty and better use of resources;
- It is more accessible to all affected parties;
- Incentives in the system are aligned with Government's objectives for the appeals framework;
- Appeals processes are as efficient and cost effective as possible.
In order to achieve this, Government is consulting on a package of changes to the way regulatory appeals are handled. The proposals cover all steps in the appeals process, including the initial incentives on firms to launch an appeal, the grounds on which an appeal is heard, the body which hears the appeal, and streamlining the processes for conducting appeals. We have also taken into account EU Directives, where these specify appeal rights in certain sectors, and to the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights where applicable.
First, Government is proposing that, where appeals are currently heard 'on the merits', these appeals should shift either to a judicial review standard, or to defined grounds of appeal setting out more clearly the basis on which firms can challenge a regulator's decision. The objective of these changes would be to ensure that appeals are focused on identifying cases where regulators have made mistakes which have a material impact on outcomes or where a decision is unreasonable. The specific changes being consulted on include:
- Changing the standard of review for appeals under the Communications Act 2003 from appeal on the merits to a flexible judicial review or specifying more focused grounds for these appeals;
- Making similar changes to the standard of review for appeals under the Competition Act 1998 (excepting decisions relating to the level of penalty);
- Aligning the grounds of appeal for energy (in Great Britain), aviation and postal services decisions; and
- Considering what the costs and benefits would be of moving to a similar appeal model for rail decisions.
Second, Government is proposing reforms to appeal bodies, including reviewing governance of the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT). The Government believes that there are significant benefits in retaining a specialist appeal body with expertise in competition and regulatory issues, and with the ability to progress appeals quickly. However, Government considers that some changes could be made to re-route appeals between different appeals bodies to increase the overall effectiveness of the system and make it easier to understand for firms and investors.
Third, Government is proposing a series of reforms to ensure that regulatory decisions are transparent and well-informed and that firms are not incentivised to make unmeritorious appeals. Government is consulting on measures including:
- Making clearer rules on the admissibility of new evidence in an appeal, and awarding costs against new evidence which could have been brought earlier at the decision-making stage;
- Increasing use of confidentiality rings by regulators and/or greater transparency and more effective consultation;
- Encouraging regulators to claim their full costs and clarifying that courts will only award costs against a regulator where they have acted unreasonably.
Finally, Government intends to streamline processes for hearing appeals. The UK's specialist appeal bodies - the CAT and the Competition Commission - already have a good record in carrying out cases efficiently, but the Government considers that further steps can be taken to support a world-class regulatory system, including:
- Introducing (and where they exist reducing) target case time limits and/ or fast track processes similar to those proposed for private actions in competition law;
- Encouraging cases to be resolved on the papers wherever possible, for example for cost awards and straightforward matters.
The Government is committed to stable and predictable regulatory frameworks to protect consumers, facilitate efficient investment and contribute to sustainable growth. It is important that regulatory frameworks avoid adding undue uncertainty to the business environment. Therefore, any changes proposed in the light of responses to this consultation will be the subject of detailed engagement and consultation with representatives of the relevant regulators, industries and investor communities."