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Timing Decisive in Credit Cards Antitrust Dispute

It is surprising how often even the most complex and valuable commercial litigation comes down to a simple matter of timing. In one example, multi-billion-pound claims in respect of alleged anti-competitive conduct in the credit and debit card market were cut down to size by the Court of Appeal.

Twelve major retailers had launched proceedings against five companies involved in the operation of a worldwide credit and debit card network. It was alleged that the way in which particular fees were charged for using the network amounted to a restriction on competition banned by European law.

The retailers’ compensation claims dated back over a period of 37 years, to 1977. However, the companies successfully argued before the High Court that a six-year time limit enshrined in the Limitation Act 1980 applied to the case. Those parts of the claims which related to periods before 2007 – six years before proceedings were instituted – were therefore struck out.

In rejecting the retailers’ challenge to that ruling, the Court of Appeal found that the limitation period had been correctly applied. Regulatory authorities had been inquiring into competition issues in the credit and debit card market since 1992 and the proceedings could have been launched much earlier. The six-year time limit was reasonable and did not deny the retailers an effective remedy.