The investigation was started following a complaint that was made further to a dispute between an interior architect and one of its customers in 2006.
Taking the deontological code of the architects trade association as a basis, the interior architects association (the Association) adopted a deontological norm in 1992, whereby the Association was entitled to adopt the rules in relation to the calculation of interior architects fees. A detailed scale was also attached to the norm, indicating how interior architects should calculate their fees on the basis of a fixed percentage of the costs of the works to be carried out that could vary according to six categories. Furthermore, the Association also put at the disposal of its members a model contract making reference to the deontological norm and the above mentioned categories of works to be carried out. After the Commission’s condemnation of certain parts of the deontological code of the architects trade association in 2004, the Association abolished the fees scale based on the categorisation of works and adapted the model contract in 2005. According to the complainant, the Association only appears to have withdrawn the fee scale and has not undertaken the measures necessary to stop the anti-competitive effects as interior architects continued to apply the deontological norm.
In its decision, the Council first ruled that the deontological norm and the fee scale should be qualified as a decision of a trade association for the purposes of the application of competition law. It further emphasised that there is no requirement for such decisions to be binding upon members but that the aim to influence the behaviour of the members of the trade association on the market is sufficient to find an infringement. The Council then recalled that trade associations are allowed to provide information on the evolution of the market to their members and to help them to run their business as long as there is no aim to directly or indirectly restrict competition. Finally, the Council ruled, on the basis of the Association’s competence to calculate interior architects’ fees, the edition of a model contract, the reference in the introduction to the deontological norm that the fee scale should be considered as a scale of minimum tariffs and the fact that the respect of the minimum fees was enforced according to the rules foreseen in a “code of honour”, that the Association had infringed the cartel prohibition from 1 April 1993 (when the first Belgian Competition Act entered into force) until 22 April 2005. As the first Competition Act, which was replaced by a new Act on 1 October 2006, did not foresee in the possibility to impose fines on associations of undertakings, the Council did not fine the Association. However, taking into account the long period during which the fee scale had been applied and some doubts that had arisen about the adequate character of the communication in relation to the change in the deontological norm in 2005, the Council ruled that the Association should publish the Council’s decision on its website for a six month period and inform its members of the Council’s decision in writing.