Socrates claim shows benefits, pitfalls of UK’s new fast-track litigation

26 May 2017. By Lewis Crofts and Simon Zekaria.

The UK's first antitrust claim to benefit from a fast-track procedure has shown judges willing to use their new powers and answer tricky legal questions within a year of filing.

But the dispute that pitted Socrates Training, an online educational service, against the Law Society of England and Wales reveals the compromises needed to achieve a speedy outcome. And for Socrates, the result may not be that lucrative.

The case was the first dispute to be run under a fast-track procedure that only became available in 2015. The new mechanism is designed to handle less complex cases that can be tried within six months.

The procedure allows small companies to file damage claims before the Competition Appeal Tribunal, a specialized competition court, yet limit the cost of the litigation.

Today's judgment — following a claim by Socrates against the Law Society over online training used to accredit property lawyers — shows UK judges prepared to offer the kind of swift justice envisaged in the rules.

The CAT handled complex arguments over developing market dominance and pushed the case from filing to trial in about six months. Judgment came today, just over a year after the case was designated as a fast-track claim.

This shows the tribunal willing to dispense speedy rulings — while limiting the litigation costs — in a way will appeal to smaller businesses, for whom the regime was designed.

But in doing so, the judgment shows the efficiencies required by parties to ensure a speedy outcome.

In a fast-track case, the judge naturally limits disclosure to move proceedings along more quickly. But today's judgment includes some veiled criticism at the Law Society for not producing a particular document ahead of the October court hearing.

In today's ruling, the tribunal exercised its judgment — "on the balance of probabilities" — over the exact moment when the Law Society became dominant in the market for particular training practices.

While the disclosure issues and the judgment call may be the right outcome in this case, they show two pressure points for future litigation that might arise in more complex cases. 

Worthwhile?

Socrates came away happy from the case today, saying the Law Society had been ordered to operate "in a non-discriminatory and transparent manner."

The company said it hoped the ruling would "prompt some reflection" at the Law Society over how it runs its programs. The Law Society said it was going to do just that.

Despite that victory on principle, Socrates had wanted more than 100,000 pounds ($128,000) in damages for the Law Society's conduct, which, it said, dated back to 2010. But the tribunal only found the society had become dominant in April 2015, significantly curtailing that potential claim.

Not only is the period much shorter, the damages may only relate to Socrates' missed opportunities for business after that date.

Moreover, by April 2015, most customers are said to have already received their training programs, and so the amount of damage suffered is likely to end up being much smaller than in the original claim.

Judges have told the two sides to agree the amount of damages out of court over the next two months.

Money may not be the be-all and end-all for Socrates. In which case, its claim has shown fast-track procedure works both for the tribunal and a small-scale plaintiff.

But the case has also hinted at the procedural kinks of seeking a swift ruling, as well as showing there may not be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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