The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently fined an association of estate and lettings agents, 3 of its members and a newspaper publisher over £735,000 for agreeing to restrict the advertising of fees or discounts in a local newspaper.
In light of this case, the CMA has sent warning letters to a number of estate and lettings agents that it has reasonable grounds for suspecting have been involved in anti-competitive agreements to restrict the advertising of fees.
Separately, the CMA has received complaints that other associations of estate agents and local newspapers may be engaging in similar practices, and is considering whether to take further action.
In order to help businesses avoid competition law risks, the CMA has also published open letters to companies in the property and newspaper industries and a case study to raise awareness that this type of activity is likely to be illegal and that businesses may face significant fines if they engage in it.
Businesses that are found to have broken competition law can be fined up to 10% of their annual worldwide turnover, and company directors can be disqualified for up to 15 years where their conduct in relation to such a breach makes them unfit to be concerned in the management of a company. In addition, individuals involved in certain very serious cartel activity, such as price-fixing, may be found guilty of the criminal cartel offence and could go to prison for up to 5 years and/or have to pay an unlimited fine.
The CMA is working with a number of industry bodies, including the National Estate Agents Association and the Property Ombudsman, to help publicise the lessons to be learned from this case and encourage best practice.
Ann Pope, CMA Acting Executive Director, Enforcement, said:
The CMA is keen to work with businesses across the property and newspaper publishing industries to explain the implications of this case and ensure they understand what they need to do to comply with competition law and can recognise where they may be at risk of breaking it.
The CMA has published a range of guidance to help businesses comply with competition law. In addition, we encourage businesses to have an effective compliance programme, including a clear and unambiguous commitment to competition law compliance from senior management. Businesses need to assess if they are at risk of breaking competition law and, if necessary, take steps to remedy the situation.