Balance of proof-(28.03.04)

In UK competition policy the regulatory used to almost have to prove his case even before a referral for investigation was allowed to begin. No longer however. The OFT now has a statutory duty to take consumer group opinion into account and is therefore minded to refer any merger where there may be some interest straight to the competition commission. Whilst this strengthening of merger policy does have strong economic logic, these benefits may be outweighed if the referral process becomes lengthened still further due to a backlog of cases.

Perhaps what is needed is automatic investigation of every merger using a quick and fairly automatic process. If certain criteria are then triggered than a further investigation in more detail is warranted. In these cases the burden of proof could then be switched to the applicant rather than the regulatory authority. Perhaps the super complaint system for consumer representatives could be limited to a certain number in each year in order to prioritise consideration.

There is still a risk in competition policy that only easy and more technical cases are dealt with. Supermarkets are an obvious example where there is a consumer business. However, other areas such as rail and bus cross ownership where natural monopoly tendencies exist at a local level may not necessarily be the area on which competition authorities should be focussing.