Denial of the French Competition Authority’s status as a court by the Cour de cassation

18/10/2021

On 30 September 2021, the Court of Cassation handed down two decisive rulings [1] on procedural matters, answering the question of whether the procedure of recusal or dismissal on grounds of legitimate suspicion, provided for in Articles 341 et seq. of the Code of Civil Procedure, is applicable to the rapporteurs of the French Competition Authority (hereinafter “the Authority”).

In this case, the Syndicat national des Fabricants d’Isolants en Laines Minérales Manufacturées had, in the context of proceedings before the Authority relating to anti-competitive practices in the thermal insulation sector, filed a request for recusal on the grounds of lack of impartiality. The applicant argued that the Authority’s rapporteur had previously carried out prosecution functions in this case within the DNECCRF. 

On 24 July 2020 [2], the First President of the Paris Court of Appeal ruled that the Authority, when it is called upon to impose a sanction, is a court of law and that, as such, the rapporteurs should be treated as judges, thus allowing the parties sued before it to request their recusal on grounds of legitimate suspicion.

Contrary to what had been decided on 4 June 2020 regarding the status of the Polynesian Competition Authority [3], in the two judgments commented on, the Court of Cassation rejected the appeals, recalling that the Authority remains an “independent administrative authority” and not a real court, including when it pronounces a sanction having the character of a punishment, since the decisions rendered by it can be subject to a “full jurisdiction” review before the Paris Court of Appeal [4], in accordance with Article 6, §1 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

Consequently, the Court of Cassation ruled that the procedure for recusal or dismissal on grounds of legitimate suspicion provided for in Articles 341 et seq. of the Code of Civil Procedure is not intended to apply to the Authority’s staff.

However, the principles of independence and impartiality remain applicable before this authority, the Court of Cassation recalling in this respect that pursuant to Articles L. 461-1 to L. 461-4, L. 463-1 to L. 463-8, R. 461-3 to R. 461-10 and R. 463-4 to R. 463-16 of the French Commercial Code, the organisation of the Authority is based on “a strict separation of the prosecution and investigation functions entrusted to a department placed under the authority of a general rapporteur, and the sanctioning powers, which are the responsibility of the college”. These texts also set out the composition of the college and organise procedures before the Authority that aim to guarantee impartiality and independence, as well as respect for the rights of the defence.

By Corinne Khayat and Ophélie Sommé for the Competition Department.

[1] Cass. 2e civ. 30 Sept. 2021, n° 20-18.672 and 20-18.302.

[2] CA Paris, order, 24 July 2020, no. 20/08149: In this case, the request for recusal had been declared inadmissible as they had not been filed sufficiently early in accordance with the provisions relating to the recusal of a judge.

[3] Cass. 2nd civ. 4 June 2020, no. 19-13.775.

[4] Article L. 464-8 of the Commercial Code.

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