In National Grid Electricity Transmission, the UK High Court correctly confirmed the Evidence Regulation as being subsidiary only.
The European Commission had found 20 companies to have been engaged in an extensive and sophisticated cartel regarding the supply of GIS, Gas Insulated Switchgear, which controls energy flow in electricity grids, and is therefore used as a major component in power substations. National Grid alleges that it suffered substantial losses by reason of overcharges resulting from the illegal cartel. Current judgment is an interim judgment on the issue of disclosure. Estimating the cartel overcharge is very dependent on expert economic evidence.
Alstom and Areva are both French-domiciled defendants. They argue that providing disclosure will put them, as French companies, in breach of a prohibition under French law which attracts criminal penalties, and therefore should not be ordered. This prohibition is referred to in the High Court judgment as the ‘French Blocking Statute‘, of 1968, as amended, most notably in 1980. The prohibition is mostly meant to assist French companies in resisting excessive disclosure requests originating in the United States. Applicants had made a request under the EU’s Evidence Regulation and had served that request to the French Ministry of Justice.
The Ministry eventually refused, mostly for technical legal reasons (the request made had identified the defendants as the ones having to produce the evidence, rather than the court having to order them to do so). Alstrom and Areva subsequently argued that the only route for them to be safe from prosecution under the French law, was for the UK court to seek the assistance of a French Court under the EU Evidence Regulation.
Roth J first considered (with French expert help) the likelihood of the companies involved being prosecuted under the Act. On that point, he concluded ‘I find it virtually inconceivable that where jurisdiction over a company is exercised pursuant to an EU regulation to make it a defendant to proceedings in another EU Member State, for damages alleged to result from an established and serious violation of a fundamental provision of EU law, which proceedings serve an objective of EU policy, the public authorities of one EU Member State would in the exercise of their discretion institute criminal proceedings against that company for complying with the procedural rules of the courts of the Member State where the proceedings are brought.’
He subsequently discussed the evidence Regulation. This Regulation is of a subsidiary nature, as I have flagged once or twice before. It does not rule out national procedural rules as an alternative. Roth J correctly holds that the Regulation would not assist in this case (whether or nor it applies to disclosure proceedings between litigious parties at all is a different matter), inter alia because of the delays and because of the potential for the French courts eventually not to meet the request, thus leading to further uncertainty. He held therefore that the French Defendants should be subject to an order for disclosure in the same way as all the other defendants.
Appeal on 22 October 2013 did not lead to the findings being overturned. The French companies now face the proverbial rock and hard stone: comply with the English order but face the possibility, however remote, of prosecution under French law. Or be safe from prosecution under French law but face contempt in the UK courts.
postscript: The Supreme Court refused permission to appeal in December 2013.