The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling of 14 June 2011 followed a case that originated in Germany.  Pfleiderer, a firm in the wood industry, was considering a damages claim against members of a paper cartel.  It sought access to the cartel files held by the German Competition Authority (FCO) in order to substantiate its claim.  A dispute followed over whether disclosing the documents of companies who had cooperated with the FCO would undermine the national leniency programme since potential leniency applicants would fear eventual disclosure.

A German court asked the ECJ for a preliminary ruling whether or not the provisions of EU competition law are to be interpreted as meaning that cartel victims can be granted access to leniency applications received by an EU Member State competition authority.

The ECJ has held  that it was for the courts and tribunals of each EU Member State on the basis of their own national law to determine the conditions under which such access must be permitted or refused by weighing the interests protected by EU law.  The upshot of this ruling is therefore that each judge in each Member State has a discretion as to what type of leniency document can be disclosed to a cartel victim.  The ECJ has therefore distanced itself from recommendations made by the Advocate General who suggested that documents which existed before the cartel was uncovered could be disclosed  but said that submissions drafted for the purpose of revealing the infringement should be protected.

For leniency applicants, weighing the decision whether to apply for leniency has now become even more complex. On the one hand, a potential leniency applicant stands to benefit from immunity, or a reduction, from fines. On the other hand,  it will now have to take into consideration not only the remaining risk of a fine and criminal sanctions but also the the fact that private damages claimant might get easier access to incriminating evidence. Such complexity is all the more greater given that the ECJ's ruling may lead to different results in different European countries.