Trade associations continue to be a good source of cases for competition regulators in the EU. It is essential that companies which are members understand how competition law applies to trade associations and to their participation in them. Where a trade association is involved, depending on exactly how any anti-competitive arrangements were organized, fines can be imposed on the association, its members or both.
A recent case from the UK provides a good example of the risks. On 10 December 2014, the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued a statement of objections (preliminary statement of case) to an association of estate and lettings agents, some of its members and a newspaper publisher. The statement of objections alleges that these entities breached competition law by agreeing to prevent estate and lettings agents from advertising their fees or discounts in the local property newspaper. As part of this, it is alleged that the membership rules of the association themselves breached competition law.
The CMA may ultimately find no competition law infringement in that case, but it shows the risks of involvement. It is also notable that back in 2008 the predecessor to the CMA had sent a warning letter to the trade association in question to alert it that its rules of membership might infringe competition law. The current investigation was then started in 2013 following a complaint by a third party. Although no allegations have yet been proven, it appears that the trade association and its members may not have properly taken heed of this warning.