In her Opinion in case C-681/11 Schenker and Others, Advocate General Kokott has addressed a very relevant question regarding the possibility to avoid competition sanctions on the basis of the (legitimate) expectations created by professional legal advice. In her Opinion, she expressly addresses the question 'Is an error with regard to the lawfulness of conduct unobjectionable in the case where the undertaking acts in accordance with advice given by a legal adviser experienced in matters of competition law and the erroneous nature of the advice was neither obvious nor capable of being identified through the scrutiny which the undertaking could be expected to exercise?'. In my view, as clearly emphasised by the AG, this is of major relevance in the 'self-assessment' paradigm created by Regulation 1/2003.
According to the AG, the framework for the analysis must be the following:
Apparently, the members of the [cartel] wrongly considered that they had stayed ‘on the safe side’, as far as European Union law was concerned, by restricting the geographical scope of their cartel to Austria alone. In the light of the case-law of the European Union courts and the administrative practice of the European Commission, there is no doubt that that legal opinion was objectively incorrect. However, it is unclear whether the infringement of the prohibition of cartels under EU law can also be attributed subjectively to the undertakings concerned. In other words, it must be examined whether the undertakings participating in the [cartel] culpably infringed the prohibition of cartels under EU law (Opinion in C-681/11, at para 36, emphasis in the original, footnotes omitted).
In that regard, and after clearly indicating that the principle of nulla poena sine culpa applies in the field of EU Competition law as an implicit requirement of Articles 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights and 48(1) of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights [for general discussion on human rights in this area, see A Sanchez Graells, 'The EU’s Accession to the ECHR and Due Process Rights in EU Competition Law Matters: Nothing New Under the Sun?', in Kosta, Skoutaris & Tzevelekos (eds), The Accession of the EU to the ECHR (Hart Publishing, 2014), available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2156904], AG Kokott goes on to explain that:
44. According to the principle of nulla poena sine culpa, an undertaking may be held responsible for a cartel offence which it has committed on a purely objective basis only where that offence can also be attributed to it subjectively. If, on the other hand, the undertaking commits an error of law precluding liability, an infringement cannot be found against it nor can it form the basis for the imposition of penalties such as fines.
45. It should be stressed that not every error of law is capable of precluding completely the liability of the undertaking participating in the cartel and thus the existence of a punishable infringement. Only where the error committed by the undertaking regarding the lawfulness of its market behaviour was unavoidable – sometimes also called an excusable error or an unobjectionable error – has the undertaking acted without fault and it cannot be held liable for the cartel offence in question.
46. Such an unavoidable error of law would appear to occur only very rarely. It can be taken to exist only where the undertaking concerned took all possible and reasonable steps to avoid its alleged infringement of EU antitrust law.
47. If the undertaking concerned could have avoided its error regarding the lawfulness of its market behaviour – as is often the case – by taking adequate precautions, it cannot escape any penalty for the cartel offence committed by it. Rather it will be liable at least for a negligent infringement, which, depending on the seriousness of the questions of competition law involved, may (but not must) lead to a reduced fine.
48. It is necessary to assess whether the error of law committed by an undertaking participating in a cartel was avoidable or unavoidable (objectionable or non-objectionable) on the basis of uniform criteria laid down in EU law, so that uniform conditions in respect of EU substantive competition law apply to all undertakings operating in the internal market (‘level playing field’) (Opinion in C-681/11, at paras 44 to 48, bold emphasis in the original, underlined added, footnotes omitted).
After briefly referring to the old Miller case law on the suitability of the (legitimate) expectations created by legal advise as a competition defence, the AG enters an interesting revision of this issue in the new paradigm created by Regulation 1/2003 and she considers that
57. [...] obtaining expert legal advice has a completely different importance in the system under Regulation No 1/2003 than was the case in the system under Regulation No 17. Consulting a legal adviser is now often the only way for undertakings to obtain detailed information about the legal situation under antitrust law.
58. It is not acceptable, on the one hand, to encourage undertakings to obtain expert legal advice but, on the other, to attach absolutely no importance to that advice in assessing their fault in respect of an infringement of EU antitrust law. If an undertaking relies, in good faith, on – ultimately incorrect – advice provided by its legal adviser, this must have a bearing in cartel proceedings for the imposition of fines.
59. In particular, the purely civil liability of a lawyer for incorrect legal advice given by him does not, contrary to the view taken by the European Commission, constitute adequate compensation in itself. Civil recourse by a client against his lawyer is generally subject to considerable uncertainty and, moreover, cannot dispel the condemnation (‘stigma’) associated with the imposition of cartel – i.e. quasi-criminal – penalties against the undertaking.
60. Of course, obtaining legal advice cannot exempt an undertaking from all individual responsibility for its market behaviour and for any infringements of European competition law. The opinion of a lawyer can never give carte blanche. Otherwise, this would open the way to the production of opinions tailored to the interests of the undertaking and the power to give official negative clearance abolished by Regulation No 1/2003 would be transferred de facto to private legal advisers, who do not have any legitimacy in that regard.
61. In accordance with the fundamental objective of the effective enforcement of European competition rules, any expectations on the part of an undertaking created by legal advice may be recognised as the basis for an error of law precluding liability only where, in obtaining that legal advice, certain minimum requirements were complied with, which I will describe briefly below.
Minimum requirements in obtaining legal advice
62. The basic condition for taking into consideration the legal advice obtained by an undertaking is that the undertaking relied in good faith on that advice. Protection of legitimate expectations and good faith are closely related. If the facts justify the assumption that the undertaking relied on a legal opinion against its better judgment or that the report was tailored to the interests of the undertaking, the legal advice given is irrelevant from the very outset in assessing fault for an infringement of the rules of European competition law.
63. Furthermore, the following minimum requirements apply to obtaining legal advice, in respect of which the undertaking concerned itself bears the risk and responsibility for compliance.
64. First of all, the advice must always be obtained from an independent external lawyer. [...]
65. Second, the advice must be given by a specialist lawyer, which means that the lawyer must be specialised in competition law, including European antitrust law, and must also regularly work for clients in this field of law.
66. Third, the legal advice must have been provided on the basis of a full and accurate description of the facts by the undertaking concerned. If an undertaking has given only incomplete or even false information to the lawyer consulted by it regarding circumstances which originate from the area of responsibility of the undertaking, the opinion of that lawyer cannot have an exculpating effect in cartel proceedings in relation to any error of law.
67. Fourth, the opinion of the consulted lawyer must deal comprehensively with the European Commission’s administrative and decision-making practice and with the case-law of the European Union courts and give detailed comments on all legally relevant aspects of the case at issue. An element which is not expressly the subject-matter of the legal advice but may possibly be inferred implicitly from it cannot form the basis for recognition of an error of law precluding liability.
68. Fifth, the legal advice given may not be manifestly incorrect. No undertaking may rely blindly on legal advice. Rather, any undertaking which consults a lawyer must at least review the plausibility of the information provided by him.
69. Of course, the diligence expected of an undertaking in this regard depends on its size and its experience in competition matters. The larger the undertaking and the more experience it has with competition law, the more it is required to review the substance of the legal advice obtained, especially if it has its own legal department with relevant expertise.
70. In any event, every undertaking must be aware that certain anti-competitive practices are, by their nature, prohibited, and in particular that no one is permitted to participate in ‘hardcore restrictions’, for example in price agreements or in agreements or measures to share or partition markets. Furthermore, large, experienced undertakings can be expected to have taken note of the relevant statements made by the European Commission in its notices and guidelines in the field of competition law.
71. Sixth, the undertaking concerned acts at its own risk if the legal opinion obtained by it shows that the legal situation is unclear. In that case, the undertaking is at least negligent in accepting that by its market behaviour it infringes the rules of European competition law.
72. Admittedly, in the light of the minimum requirements I have just proposed, the value of legal opinions given by lawyers is slightly diminished for the undertakings concerned. However, this is inherent in the system created by Regulation No 1/2003 and is also no different in conventional criminal law; in the final analysis, any undertaking is itself responsible for its market behaviour and bears the risk for infringements of the law it commits. Absolute legal certainty cannot be secured by obtaining legal advice from a lawyer. However, if all the abovementioned minimum requirements are satisfied, an error of law precluding liability can be taken to exist where the undertaking concerned has relied in good faith on an opinion from its legal adviser.
73. It should be added that a lawyer who, by delivering opinions tailored to the interests of an undertaking, becomes an accomplice in the undertaking’s anti‑competitive practices will have to contend with not only consequences under the rules of civil law and of professional conduct, but may possibly also himself be subject to penalties imposed in cartel proceedings (Opinion in C-681/11, at paras 57 to 73, underlined added, footnotes omitted).
In my view, the very high minimum requirements suggested by AG Kokott may seem desirable from a theoretical perspective but, in practice, may generate the result that (very expensive, specialised) legal advice in EU Competition law matters is not worth the paper it is written on--and, consequently, undertakings may not even bother seeking (and paying for) it.
Moreover, the level of pressure under which competition specialists would operate may make it impossible for them to effectively cover (ie insure) their potential liability at reasonable costs--thereby having a negative effect on the availability and affordability of good quality legal advice in this field.
On the other hand, building a strong in-house competition team may even be self-defeating, as it comes to raise the threshold of diligence applicable to the undertaking. Therefore, companies may even consider whether they are better off simply omitting competition legal advice.
Given the complexity of the assessments required in certain cases, as well as the standard practice of introducing caveats and limitations in legal opinions (not only in this field of legal practice), coupled with the (not-so) residual duty of the requesting undertakings to double-check the accuracy of the legal advise obtained; successfully relying in a defence based on the legitimate expectations created by the advice of the legal expert seems very hard to achieve.
In that regard, I think that the CJEU should depart from the Opinion of AG Kokott in one of two possible ways: a) either the CJEU avoids endorsing her analysis and confirms the full applicability of Miller in the post- Regulation 1/2003 paradigm (which would generate simplicity and avoid litigation), or b) it adopts a more flexible approach and sets a less demanding standard for this defence (and,consequently, creates some room for an effective 'serious legal advice' defence).
In my view, route b) would be preferable because resort to 'sound legal advice' can be coupled with the requirements connected with the implementation of effective competition compliance programs for the purposes of giving undertakings a chance of ever succeeding in proving lack of intention or unobjectionable conduct. In that regard, there seems to be some need for further consistent developments of the rules applicable in the 'self-assessment' paradigm created by Regulation 1/2003.