Cyril Amarchand MangaldasExperts Corner

Background

In a landmark decision on 10-4-2019[1], a Division Bench of the High Court of Delhi (Delhi HC), pronounced a judgment relating to a batch of petitions filed by car manufacturers wherein the constitutionality of certain provisions of the Competition Act, 2002 (Act) was challenged. The genesis of the matter arose from the Competition Commission of India’s (CCI) findings in what has come to be known as the Auto Parts case[2]. The complaint alleged that 3 car manufacturers, M/s Honda Siel Cars India Ltd., Volkswagen India Pvt. Ltd. and Fiat India Automobiles Limited, restricted free availability of spare parts in the open market, which caused a denial of market access for independent repairers, in addition to other anti-competitive effects including high prices of spare parts and repair and maintenance services for automobiles.

After a detailed investigation by the Director General (DG) into the practices of 14 car manufacturers (the informant had only complained about 3 car manufacturers), the CCI found that the car manufacturers had contravened the provisions of Sections 3 and 4 of the Act and levied a penalty of 2% of the total turnover in India on each of the manufacturers. As a consequence, some car manufacturers filed a writ before the Delhi HC challenging the constitutional validity of certain provisions of the Act, which directly impacted the validity of the CCI’s final order in Auto Parts case[3].

Key Issues for Determination

The Delhi HC delineated the following key issues for determination: (i) whether the CCI is a tribunal exercising judicial functions; (ii) whether the composition of the CCI is unconstitutional and violates the principle of separation of powers; (iii) whether the “revolving door” practice at the CCI vitiates any provisions of the Act and more specifically, if the manner for decision-making provided under Section 22(3) of the Act is unconstitutional; and (iv) whether an expansion in scope of inquiry by the CCI is illegal.

Ruling on the first issue, the Delhi HC held that the CCI is in part administrative, expert (when discharging advisory and advocacy functions) and quasi-judicial (while issuing final orders, directions and penalties) and cannot be characterised as a tribunal solely discharging judicial powers.

On the second issue, the Delhi HC dealt with each of the provisions of the Act that were challenged by the petitioners and also undertook a comparison of regulatory models of different specialised bodies/tribunals vis-à-vis the CCI. In particular, Section(s) 61 and 53-T of the Act (which deal with exclusion of jurisdiction of civil courts and High Courts, respectively); Section 9 (which provides for the selection procedure/committee for members of the CCI); Section(s) 11, 55 and 56 (which deal with tenure of the members of the CCI and the provision for supersession by the Central Government in the event the CCI is unable to discharge its functions); Section 53-D (which prescribes the composition and constitution of the Appellate Tribunal) were upheld to be valid. Regarding Section 8 of the Act, the Delhi HC clarified that the requirement for the CCI to have a judicial member at all times is mandatory and in line with precedents of the Honourable Supreme Court of India (SC) as well. The Delhi HC declared Section 53-E of the Act (which deals with composition of the Selection Committee of the Appellate Tribunal), to be unconstitutional subject to the decision of the Honourable SC in Central Administrative Tribunal v. Union of India[4] (wherein certain provisions of the Finance Act, 2017 have been challenged).

Most importantly, the Delhi HC declared Section 22(3) of the Act which provides a casting vote (to the Chairperson of the CCI) to be void. It was held that the principle of equal weight for decisions of each participant of a quasi-judicial tribunal is destroyed by this provision. Whereas the proviso to Section 22(3), mandating a minimum quorum of three members (including the Chairman) for any meeting of CCI — where an adjudicatory decision is made — was upheld.

Regarding the “revolving door policy” the Delhi HC emphasised on the principle of “who hears must decide” and stated that any violation of this rule would render any final order void. It was also clarified that much would depend on the factual context and merely resorting to the practice of “revolving door” would not render Section 22 of the Act invalid or arbitrary. It is necessary that the party raising such objections must have been prejudiced.

Further, in line with the decision of the Honourable SC in Excel Crop Care Ltd. v. CCI[5], the Delhi HC held that the CCI is well within its power to expand the scope of inquiry to include other issues and parties. This is because at the prima facie stage, the CCI may not have all information in respect of the parties’ conduct.

Finally, the Delhi HC has directed the CCI to frame guidelines ensuring that the principle of “one who hears decides” is embodied in letter and spirit in its functioning. It concluded that in all cases where final hearings begin, the membership should not vary, and a matter should preferably be heard by 7 or at least, 5 members. The CCI has also been directed to ensure that a judicial member is present and participating at all times during a final hearing. The directions also mandate the Central Government to take expeditious steps and fill all existing vacancies in the CCI within 6 months.

Key Takeaway

While the directions of the Delhi HC will go a long way in entrenching principles of natural justice in the CCI’s practice and procedure, they may have immediate ramifications on its functioning (given that the CCI is currently composed of 3 members with no judicial member). Interestingly, this may also have a bearing on the decision of the Union Cabinet which had approved “right sizing” of the CCI to 4 members (including the Chairperson) in April last year.

Having said that, this may not be the last we hear from the judiciary as the Delhi HC order is likely to be challenged before the Supreme Court of India.


*Bharat Budholia, Partner can be contacted at Bharat.budholia@cyrilshroff.com, Aishwarya Gopalakrishnan, Principal Associate can be contacted at Aishwarya.gopalakrishnan@cyrilshroff.com and Dhruv Rajain, Senior Associate can be contacted at dhruv.rajain@cyrilshroff.com with the Competition Law Practice at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas.

[1]        Mahindra Electric Mobility Ltd. v. CCI, 2019 SCC OnLine Del 8032.

[2]        Shamsher Kataria v. Honda Siel Cars India Ltd., 2014 SCC OnLine CCI 95.

[3]        Shamsher Kataria v. Honda Siel Cars India Ltd., 2014 SCC OnLine CCI 95.

[4]        WP (C) No. 640 of 2017 (SC).

[5]        (2017) 8 SCC 47.

Cyril Amarchand MangaldasExperts Corner

The enactment of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (IBC) in 2016 was one of the most significant reforms introduced by the Government of India (GoI) in the recent years. However, it lacked clarity on its interface with various other regulatory authorities, particularly the Competition Commission of India (CCI). Pertinently, the IBC did not contemplate the timelines for a resolution applicant to notify and seek the approval of the CCI, thereby posing several complex questions, in particular—what would qualify as a binding agreement for insolvency cases? Whether notification process can be triggered prior to approval of a resolution plan? Whether IBC related cases would be granted an expedited approval? Whether preferential treatment would be granted to companies approaching the CCI post obtaining an approval from the Committee of Creditors (CoC)?

With the notification of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Second Amendment) Act, 2018 (Second Amendment), the Ministry of Corporate Affairs has provided much needed clarity to all stakeholders in relation to the above issues. The Second Amendment by way of introduction of a new provision, mandates the approval of the CCI prior to the approval of a resolution plan by the CoC, thereby taking away the discretion exercised earlier by resolution applicants as to the timelines of notifying the CCI. In this backdrop, the article touches upon the merits of the amendment, active role of the CCI in the past two years and the way forward.

Legal Framework

The corporate insolvency resolution process (CIRP) is initiated with the admission of an application against a corporate debtor to the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT). Thereafter, a resolution professional issues request for resolution plans inviting the interested bidders to submit resolution plans in relation to resolution of the corporate debtor. This is followed by approval of such resolution plan by the CoC and stamping of final approval by the NCLT. The IBC mandates a 180-day period which can be extended to 90 days for the completion of the CIRP.

In the construct of Section 5 of the Competition Act, 2002 (Competition Act), where certain jurisdictional thresholds prescribed under it are breached, a transaction under the CIRP would trigger a mandatory approval from the CCI before closing such a transaction. Under the Competition Act, the CCI is required to form a prima facie opinion of whether a transaction notified to it causes an appreciable adverse effect on competition (AAEC) within a period of 30 working days from the date of such notification. Besides the 30 working day period, the CCI is required to approve/reject/approve with modification any notified transaction within 210 days from the date of such notification, which can be extended to 60 days in limited cases where remedies are warranted. It is important to note that a majority of the cases notified to the CCI have been approved in Phase I of the review period i.e. within the preliminary 30 working day period.

Reasons for the Second Amendment vis-à-vis Competition Act

The Ministry of Corporate Affairs by way of its Notification dated 17-8-2018 added Section 31(4) to the IBC, which inter alia provides that—

… where the resolution plan contains a provision for combination, as referred to in Section 5 of the Competition Act, 2002 (12 of 2003), the resolution applicant shall obtain the approval of the Competition Commission of India under that Act prior to the approval of such resolution plan by the committee of creditors.

The above amendment is a welcome step as it clarifies the trigger event for a transaction under the CIRP i.e. essentially the stage at which the CCI approval should be sought. Having a clear mandate to obtain approval from the CCI will go a long way in preventing complex situations which have come up due to the regulatory uncertainties around the CCI approval process.

In the past, we have seen certain cases being notified to the CCI both prior to and post the approval of the CoC. For instance, in the acquisition of Binani Cement Limited (BCL) (one of the first few IBC matters examined by the CCI) two resolution applicants i.e. Dalmia Cement Limited (Dalmia) and UltraTech Cement Limited (UltraTech), both filed separate notifications with the CCI prior to receiving an approval from the CoC. The CCI accorded an approval, finding no AAEC to both Dalmia and UltraTech. However, the approval to UltraTech was accorded by the CCI post the CoC’s approval of the Dalmia resolution plan, thereby making CCI’s approval of UltraTech immaterial.

In another case on point relating to the acquisition of Electrosteel Steels Limited (Electrosteel) by Vedanta Limited (Vedanta), the CCI was notified post the approval of the resolution plan by the CoC. Importantly, Vedanta’s resolution plan was subsequently approved by the NCLT during the CCI’s review process. Such a situation i.e. approval by the NCLT pending the CCI approval could possibly lead to two issues — (1) disqualification of Vedanta and ultimately liquidation of Electrosteel assuming that CCI’s approval took more than 270 days (mandated under the IBC); and (2) potential gun-jumping concerns under the Competition Act because of the conflict between the IBC and the Competition Act resulting from the implementation of “control” provisions under a resolution plan (pursuant to the approval of NCLT).

CCI, IBC and the Way Forward

The CCI has up until now expeditiously assessed a number of IBC transactions and approved such transactions, with an average of 20 days per transaction. As mentioned above, the Second Amendment is a welcome step given that it clarifies the exact timelines for notifying the CCI in the CIRP framework. The Second Amendment emphasises the intent of the GoI to ensure expedited clearances for transactions, defined roles for the various regulators and harmony between the implementation of the statutes.

More importantly, the mandate of the Second Amendment requiring a resolution applicant to obtain approval from the CCI prior to the CoC approval of a resolution plan ensures that the two potential issues highlighted above are avoided, even if it results in multiple filings for the same transaction before the CCI by different resolution applicants.

While the Second Amendment (to the extent it applies to the Competition Act) is an outcome of the need for streamlining regulatory approval process, it would also be interesting to see whether further amendments will be rolled out in this regard or, whether the GoI, following the suit of Securities and Exchange Board of India, would resort to exempting such transaction from the purview of CCI altogether.


*Anshuman Sakle is a Partner with the Competition Law Practice at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas and can be contacted at anshuman.sakle@cyrilshroff.com.  Dhruv Rajain, Senior Associate can be contacted at dhruv.rajain@cyrilshroff.com and Ruchi Verma, Associate, can be contacted at ruchi.verma@cyrilshroff.com with the Competition Law Practice at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas.

Case BriefsTribunals/Commissions/Regulatory Bodies

Competition Commission of India (CCI): The Bench comprising of Sudhir Mital, Chairperson and Augustine Peter, U.C. Nahta and G.P. Mittal, Members, while addressing information being filed under Section 19(1)(a) for contravention of provisions of Sections 3 and 4 of the Competition Act, 2002, found no prima facie case made out.

In the present matter the factual matrix of the case stands out in the following manner, the Informant has alleged OP-Timex Group India Ltd. of indulging in anti-competitive conduct/practices. Informant was responsible for selling OP’s wrist watches on e-commerce platforms. The following were the allegations placed against the OP:

  • OP is indulging in Resale Price Maintenance with its distributors in contravention of Section 3 (4)(e) of the Competition Act, 2002.
  • OP discriminated the Informant against other e-commerce players by limiting the market for distribution of the OP and in violation of Sections 3(3)(a), 3(3)(b) and 3(3)(c) of the Competition Act, 2002.
  • OP instructed its retailers/service centres against providing after-sale services to the wrist watches being sold by the Informant, which resulted in the deprivation of consumer service in contravention of Section 3(4)(d) of the Act.
  • OP has also been alleged to file a frivolous suit against Informant saying that OP is engaged in manufacturing of counterfeit wrist watches of the OP.
  • Agreements entered between the OP and its dealers/distributors created an appreciable adverse effect on competition in contravention of Sections 4 and 3 of the Act.

The Commission on perusal of the allegations been placed upon and conducting an exhaustive hearing with multiple dates for the same and going through in-depth proceedings by patiently taking up the contentions of both the parties and explaining its own stance on the allegations, Commission found no contravention of the provisions of Sections 3 and 4 of the Competition Act, 2002 and ordered the matter to be closed under Section 26 (2) of the Act. [Counfreedise v. Timex Group India Ltd.,2018 SCC OnLine CCI 67, Order dated 14-08-2018]