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Spanish Royal Decree 463/2020 of March 14, 2020 declaring the state of alarm to address the health emergency caused by COVID-19 (explained here) provided a series of measures including the suspension of terms and deadlines in procedures before public sector entities, and the National Commission for Markets and Competition (CNMC) and the competition authorities of Spain’s autonomous regions have announced that those time limits will only restart when the Royal Decree or any extensions to it have lapsed. Those measures have a number of implications for those authorities.
Deadlines have been suspended …
Deadlines for decisions on matters (for example, the 18 months for decisions in cartel and abuse investigations or the one month deadline for first phase merger review) and deadlines for completing any steps already communicated to parties to investigations (such as responsess to statements of objections or requests for information) have been put on hold. (On the other hand, however, please note that specific regulations apply to the deadlines for paying fines that have already been imposed and notified by the competition authority.)
At an operational level, the CNMC and other authorities have canceled work travel and ordered staff to work from home. While this does not mean that work on matters that are under way will stop, it does mean that there will be no inspections during this time and may impede the celebration of meetings needed to take most decisions.
As a result, the suspension will significantly slow down processing of all matters in progress, both those involving sanctions and all others.
… but work goes on
Nevertheless, the CNMC’s Directorate of Competition and the staff at other authorities are working remotely and reviewing the information they receive, cooperating among themselves, and following the news on markets and business activities. In particular, they have announced that they will be vigilant for possible abuses, agreements or other practices that might interfere with supply or result in an unjustified increase in the prices of goods necessary to protect the health of the population or the supply of basic necessities.
Furthermore, interested parties can request proceedings in given cases not to be suspended and for appropriate measures to be taken if delay would seriously harm their legitimate rights and interests. In this regard, the CNMC has indicated that it if there are reasons for doing so, it may in particular continue administrative proceedings in matters relating to circumstances closely linked to the state of emergency or essential to the protection of the public interest or the functioning of basic services.
Suspension of court proceedings
In view of the measures set out in the Royal Decree declaring the state of emergency, the General Council of the Spanish Judiciary has also decided to declare all scheduled court proceedings and all procedural deadlines on hold (the announcement is available here). The suspension applies to all courts at all levels.
From the standpoint of competition law, this will primarily affect two areas:
- In judicial review proceedings, both the deadline to lodge appeals against the CNMC Council decisions and the deadlines for any steps in those appeals, such as submission of the statement of claim or written conclusions, are suspended.
- In civil and commercial proceedings (where claims for damages from breach of competition regulations are heard) all deadlines for lodging or answering claims and all pretrial hearing and trials are also suspended.
However, the General Council of the Spanish Judiciary has decided that “essential services” will continue, including proceedings for expedited and urgent interim measures.
Organizational changes in Brussels
Although no suspension of time limits and deadlines like that in Spain has been ordered, the European Commission has also greatly cut back on non-essential travel and meetings as part of its response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Accordingly, inspections can also be expected to be cut back significantly in the short term.
The Commission’s website has also announced that the oral procedure for leniency applications has been suspended until further notice, although as an alternative applicants for leniency can continue to submit statements and supporting documents using the Commission’s eLeniency online tool.
Extensions of time in Luxembourg
Finally, the Court of Justice of the European Union has also announced that all time limits in pending proceedings will be extended for one month. The extension also applies to deadlines set by the Registry of the Court of Justice and the General Court, while both Courts have ordered the adjournment of all hearings scheduled up to April 3, 2020.
Nevertheless, deadlines for lodging proceedings and appeals will continue to run, and parties will be required to comply with them, and matters before both Courts will continue, though priority will be given to particularly urgent cases. These measures may affect all appeals brought against Commission decisions.
The announcements by the Court of Justice and the General Court are available here.
Authors: Andrew Ward, Irene Moreno-Tapia, Marta Simón, and Alexandre Picón
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