The Federal Court recently held that submissions and internal documents provided by a party to the ACCC to support or oppose a transaction pursuant to the ACCC’s informal clearance process could be used against the same party in proceedings – seven years later.
The decision means that parties and their advisors will need to ensure submissions and internal documents provided to the ACCC are not inconsistent with future plans or transactions.
In August 2013, BlueScope Steel Limited (BlueScope) sought informal merger clearance from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for its proposed acquisition of certain OneSteel Sheet and Coil assets from Arrium Limited (Merger Review).
As part of the Merger Review, BlueScope provided the ACCC with various documents, including submissions, correspondence, economic reports and other materials on the steel industry, BlueScope’s business and the markets in which it competed (merger documents). Some of the merger documents were authored by economists and legal advisors.
Following the acceptance of undertakings provided by BlueScope in August 2014, the merger was not opposed by the ACCC.
In 2019, the ACCC commenced proceedings in the Federal Court against BlueScope and BlueScope’s former General Manager of Sales and Marketing, Jason Ellis, for alleged cartel conduct in contravention of s 44ZZRJ of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth) (CCA) (Proceeding).
The ACCC alleges that, from approximately September 2013 to June 2014, BlueScope and Mr Ellis attempted to induce competitors of BlueScope to make a contract, arrangement or understanding containing a cartel provision, which had the purpose or likely effect of fixing, controlling or maintaining prices of flat steel products.
In seeking to support its case with evidence about the market and Bluescope’s competitors, the ACCC sought to rely upon the merger documents Bluescope had previously submitted in 2013 as part of the Merger Review.
The ACCC submitted that the merger documents were admissible in accordance with the “business records” or “admissions” exceptions to the hearsay rule.
Bluescope submitted that the merger documents were hearsay. It said that the above exceptions did not apply to the merger documents because:
BlueScope also submitted that statements regarding competition or competitors in the merger documents (which addressed the issue of whether the transaction substantially lessened competition in a market) were irrelevant to the Proceeding where the relevant issue was whether the parties to the contract, arrangement or understanding were competitors.
The merger documents were held to be admissible in the Proceeding.
The Court rejected BlueScope’s contention that the merger documents were not business records and were prepared for the purposes of litigation. While his Honour acknowledged that BlueScope was seeking to avoid litigation by seeking informal clearance, there was “no evidence to suggest that, at the time the documents were prepared, the ACCC had threatened legal proceedings to prevent the merger”.
The Court held that the representations contained in the merger documents constituted admissions because they contained a detailed description of BlueScope’s business including its manufacturing process, distribution channels and prices. These were facts not opinion. The court also held that submissions and reports from lawyers and economists had the authority of their client.
The Court also held that while statements regarding competition in the Merger Review were different to the issue of competition in a cartel case, “the enquiry concerns the same question: the existence of competition in respect of the supply of particular goods or services”.
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