In its Decision n°13-D-14 dated June 11, 20132, the French Competition Authority fined professional organisations of veterinarians in Alsace, namely the Conseil Régional de l’Ordre des Vétérinaires d’Alsace (EUR 25,000), the syndicat national des Vétérinaires d’exercice libéral - Section du BasRhin (SNVEL 67) (EUR 5,000) and the syndicat national des vétérinaires d’exercice libéral - Section du Haut-Rhin (SNVEL 68) (EUR 1,000) for price-fixing.
The highest fine was levied on the veterinarians’ self-regulatory body, which the Authority found had exceeded the bounds of its statutory tasks and prerogatives.
The French Competition Authority reproached the veterinary professional organisations for having implemented, during 17 years (between 1991 and 2008), a “charter” setting the prices that signatory veterinary surgeons were to invoice the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (“SPCA”) in Strasbourg and dividing up the various interventions of the participating veterinarians. The French Competition Authority also found that, as from December 2006, the defendants tried to extend the reach of this charter, from Strasbourg to the rest of Alsace.
In its Decision, the French Competition Authority refused to apply the economic progress exemption referred to in Article L.420-4 I 2° of the French Commercial Code, noting, albeit in terms that far exceeded those of Article L.420-4 I 2° but resemble those of the European Court of Justice, that the organisations involved did not demonstrate that the charter imposing a fixed tariff scheme on signatory veterinarians or a wider diffusion of this charter to the other SPCAs in Alsace would have been essential and indispensable to providing the best quality of care.
Nor was the French Competition Authority persuaded by the argument of the parties to the effect that the charter had no anti-competitive character because the prices fixed were significantly lower than the prices usually proposed by the veterinarians to their private clients.
This Decision echoes and, as far as the fines are concerned, goes beyond a line of cases in which French professional self-regulatory bodies have been fined for issuing fee scales. In several decisions, the Paris Court of Appeal and the French Supreme Court held that the issuance of an indicative fee scale by local French bar associations, even though it was mentioned that the actual fees charged by lawyers may be freely determined notwithstanding the fee scale, had a potentially anti-competitive effect on the local legal services markets since lawyers were likely to fix their fees based on the scale rather than on objective criteria (CA Paris, December 9, 1997; French Supreme Court February 13, 2001 “Marseille Bar”).