(Non)disclosure of leniency applications in the proposed 'Damages Directive': Commission v CJEU?

The European Commission has finally published its Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on certain rules governing actions for damages under national law for infringements of the competition law provisions of the Member States and of the European Union [COM(2013) 404] (the proposed 'Damages Directive'). 

Amongst many other interesting (and controversial rules), the proposed Damages Directive tackles the issue of the disclosability of leniency materials, which has been recently analysed by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in Donau Chemie and had been previously analysed in Pfleiderer (which were discussed here).

The proposed 'Damages Directive' follows the prior Resolution of the Meeting of the Heads of the European Competition Authorities of 23 May 2012, on the protection of leniency material in the context of civil damages actions and is based on the argument that
In the absence of legally binding action at the EU level, the effectiveness of the leniency programmes — which constitute a very important instrument in the public enforcement of the EU competition rules — could thus be seriously undermined by the risk of disclosure of certain documents in damages actions before national courts.
Remarkably, this argument was adopted by Advocate General Jääskinen in his Donau Chemie Opinion (para 56), but was later rejected in very clear terms by the CJEU in the Donau Chemie Judgment, where it very clearly emphasised that:
as regards the public interest of having effective leniency programmes [...] it should be observed that, given the importance of actions for damages brought before national courts in ensuring the maintenance of effective competition in the European Union (see C‑453/99 Courage and Crehan [2001] ECR I‑6297, paragraph 27), the argument that there is a risk that access to evidence contained in a file in competition proceedings which is necessary as a basis for those actions may undermine the effectiveness of a leniency programme in which those documents were disclosed to the competent competition authority cannot justify a refusal to grant access to that evidence (C-536/11 at para 46, emphasis added).
Consequently,  the CJEU restricted the possibility to reject the disclosure of leniency documents to very specific and narrow circumstances by stressing that
The mere risk that a given document may actually undermine the public interest relating to the effectiveness of the national leniency programme is liable to justify the non-disclosure of that document (C-536/11 at paras 48, emphasis added).
This is in clear contrast with the Commission's policy-based approach in the proposed 'Damages Directive', where specific rules against the disclosure of leniency documents are established in Article 6 on the limits on the disclosure of evidence from the file of a competition authority:
1. Member States shall ensure that, for the purpose of actions for damages, national courts cannot at any time order a party or a third party to disclose any of the following categories of evidence:
(a) leniency corporate statements; and
(b) settlement submissions.
2. Member States shall ensure that, for the purpose of actions for damages, national courts can order the disclosure of the following categories of evidence only after a competition authority has closed its proceedings or taken a decision referred to in Article 5 of Regulation No 1/2003 or in Chapter III of Regulation No 1/2003:
(a) information that was prepared by a natural or legal person specifically for the proceedings of a competition authority;
(b) information that was drawn up by a competition authority in the course of its proceedings.
3. Disclosure of evidence in the file of a competition authority that does not fall into any of the categories listed in paragraphs 1 or 2 of this Article may be ordered in actions for damages at any time.
As the explanatory memorandum clarifies, the rules have the following aims:
To prevent that the disclosure of evidence jeopardises the public enforcement of the competition rules by a competition authority, the proposed Directive also establishes common EU-wide limits to disclosure of evidence held in the file of a competition authority:
(a) First, it provides for absolute protection for two types of documents which are considered to be crucial for the effectiveness of public enforcement tools. The documents referred to are the leniency corporate statements and settlement submissions. The disclosure of these documents risks seriously affecting the effectiveness of the leniency programme and of settlements procedures. Under the proposed Directive, a national court can never order disclosure of such documents in an action for damages.
(b) Second, it provides for temporary protection for documents that the parties have specifically prepared for the purpose of public enforcement proceedings (e.g. the party’s replies to the authority’s request for information) or that the competition authority has drawn up in the course of its proceedings (e.g. a statement of objections). Those documents can be disclosed for the purpose of an antitrust damages action only after the competition authority has closed its proceedings.
(c) Apart from limiting the national court’s ability to order disclosure, the above protective measures should also come into play if and when the protected documents have been obtained in the context of public enforcement proceedings (e.g. in the exercise of one of the parties’ right of defence). Therefore, where one of the parties in the action for damages had obtained those documents from the file of a competition authority, such documents are not admissible as evidence in an action for damages (documents of category (a) above) or are admissible only when the authority has closed its proceedings (documents of category (b) above).
(d) Documents which fall outside the above categories can be disclosed by court order at any moment in time. However, when doing so, national courts should refrain from ordering the disclosure of evidence by reference to information supplied to a competition authority for the purpose of its proceedings. While the investigation is on-going, such disclosure could hinder public enforcement proceedings, since it would reveal what information is in the file of a competition authority and could thus be used to unravel the authority’s investigation strategy. However, the selection of pre-existing documents that are submitted to a competition authority for the purposes of the proceedings is in itself relevant, as undertakings are invited to supply targeted evidence in view of their cooperation. The willingness of undertakings to supply such evidence exhaustively or selectively when cooperating with competition authorities may be hindered by disclosure requests that identify a category of documents by reference to their presence in the file of a competition authority rather than their type, nature or object (e.g. requests for all documents in the file of a competition authority or all documents submitted thereto by a party). Therefore, such global disclosure requests for documents should normally be deemed by the court as disproportionate and not complying with the requesting party's duty to specify categories of evidence as precisely and narrowly as possible.
(e) Finally, to prevent documents obtained through access to a competition authority’s file becoming an object of trade, only the person who obtained access to the file (or his legal successor in the rights related to the claim) should be able to use those documents as evidence in an action for damages.
In my view, the rules that support points (a) to (d) are in contrast with the Donau Chemie Judgment and are bound to clash with existing EU Law in two respects: firstly, they can be disproportionately limiting the possibilities to obtain effective redress and, consequently, limiting the effectiveness of Articles 101 and 102 TFEU as interpreted by the CJEU in Courage. And, secondly, they can be disproportionately restricting the procedural autonomy of Member States by excluding the ability of domestic courts to conduct the balancing of interests between leniency defendants and damages claimants that the CJEU has stressed both in Pfleiderer and Donau Chemie

Hence, in my opinion, the rules in the Commission's proposed 'Damages Directive' are inadequate and should be revised, particularly as the absolute protection of  leniency corporate statements and settlement submissions are concerned, which are based on a policy option that has been disapproved by the CJEU very recently. 

The rest of the rules on temporary protection of evidence and preemption of discovery-like requests of evidence should also be revised, since they may make it very burdensome for potential claimants to actually have access to the requested evidence (for alternative proposals discussed in view of the 2005 Green Paper on Damages, see Sanchez Graells, 'Discovery, Confidentiality and Disclosure of Evidence Under the Private Enforcement of EU Antitrust Rules'). Otherwise, there will be very significant difficulties for the claim of damages in private actions due to infringements of the EU's and Member States' competition rules.