On May 19 the Spanish National Commission for Markets and Competition (Comisión Nacional de los Mercados y la Competencia or "CNMC") imposed a fine of €180,000 on the Madrid Bar Association (Ilustre Colegio de Abogados de Madrid or “ICAM”) for alleged “market sharing” in relation to the provision of free legal assistance.

Through the “turno de oficio” (or “duty roster”) lawyers are assigned, on a rotating basis, to people in need of a lawyer. The service is administered by local bar associations and provided free to those who meet certain criteria, with the lawyers’ fees being paid by the state (where the criteria are not met, the clients are expected to pay the lawyer themselves).

During a six year period the ICAM limited access to the “duty roster” to those lawyers that had offices open to the public in Madrid. Lawyers from Alcala de Henares – which is a 45 minute drive from Madrid and has its own bar association - complained to the Madrid competition authority that this requirement was restricting competition.

The case was investigated by the Madrid Competition Authority but decided by the CNMC under a framework agreement between the two authorities (there are similar arrangements for a number of regions in Spain) and the CNMC upheld the complaint. It found that the requirement was disproportionate and unjustified, as the services to be provided did not themselves require the lawyer to have offices open to the public in Madrid. As such, by introducing the requirement, the ICAM had distorted competition via the “duty roster”.

In fact, the CNMC found the ICAM liable for a “very serious” infringement of market sharing contrary to Article 1 of Law 15/2007 for the Defense of Competition and imposing a fine of €180,000.

The CNMC and its predecessors have a long history of action against bar associations and this is the fourth time in the last two years that Spanish competition authorities have fined Bar Associations on similar grounds. Since September 2016, the Bar Associations of Guadalajara, Valladolid and Bizkaia have all been fined for applying unjustified requirements on lawyers taking part in the duty roster or public legal aid scheme. The ICAM itself has also been recently fined by the CNMC for an alleged “collective recommendation” consisting of publishing a list of criteria to determine lawyers’ fees. You can read our blog post on that matter here.

The press release and decision may be accessed here (in Spanish).