Cartels are secret agreements between firms to fix prices or share markets between them. This section outlines the issues involved in the detection and prosecution of such cartel activity in the Irish economy.
The Cartel Enforcement Division within the Competition Authority deals with investigations into possible contraventions of Section 4 of the 1991 Act, particularly horizontal cartel agreements. Cartels are generally recognised as the most serious form of anti-competitive behaviour and the Authority has identified cartel investigations as its top priority.
Most cartels fall into one of two categories:
The Price-Fixing Cartel aims to ensure that its members are able to charge higher prices for specific goods or services than they could if they competed with each other;
The Market-Sharing Cartel where members agree among themselves to divide up the market or who should get a particular contract, again enabling them to charge higher prices than if they competed.
The Authority may investigate an alleged cartel either on foot of a complaint or on its own initiative. Investigations of cartels are generally treated as criminal. Where it obtains evidence of a cartel, the Authority will submit a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions with a recommendation that the parties involved be prosecuted. In other cases the Authority may itself bring a summary prosecution in the District Court.
The Competition Act 2002 provides that an undertaking found guilty on indictment of participating in a cartel can be fined up to €4m or 10% of turnover, whichever sum is greater. Similar fines may also be imposed on individual managers or directors of such an undertaking together with a maximum of 5 years imprisonment. The maximum penalty for a summary prosecution is a fine of €3,000 and up to six months imprisonment