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JUDGMENT OF THE COURT

20 September 2001 (1)

(Article 85 of the EC Treaty (now Article 81 EC) - Beer tie - Leasing of public houses - Restrictive agreement - Right to damages of a party to the contract)

In Case C-453/99,

REFERENCE to the Court under Article 234 EC by the Court of Appeal (England amd Wales) (Civil Division) for a preliminary ruling in the proceedings pending before that court between

Courage Ltd

and

Bernard Crehan

and between

Bernard Crehan

and

Courage Ltd and Others,

on the interpretation of Article 85 of the EC Treaty (now Article 81 EC) and other provisions of Community law,

THE COURT,

composed of: G.C. Rodríguez Iglesias, President, C. Gulmann, M. Wathelet (Rapporteur) and V. Skouris (Presidents of Chambers), D.A.O. Edward, P. Jann, L. Sevón, F. Macken and N. Colneric, J.N. Cunha Rodrigues and C.W.A. Timmermans, Judges,

Advocate General: J. Mischo,


Registrar: L. Hewlett, Administrator,

after considering the written observations submitted on behalf of:

-    Courage Ltd, by N. Green QC, instructed by A. Molyneux, Solicitor,

-    Bernard Crehan, by D. Vaughan QC and M. Brealey, Barrister, instructed by R. Croft, solicitor,

-    the United Kingdom Government, by J.E. Collins, acting as Agent, and K. Parker QC,

-    the French Government, by K. Rispal-Bellanger et R. Loosli-Surrans, acting as Agents,

-    the Italian Government, by U. Leanza, acting as Agent,

-    the Swedish Government, by L. Nordling and I. Simfors, acting as Agents,

-    the Commission of the European Communities, by K. Wiedner, acting as Agent, and N. Khan, Barrister,

having regard to the Report for the Hearing,

after hearing the oral observations of Courage Ltd, represented by N. Green and M. Gray, Barrister, of Bernard Crehan, represented by D. Vaughan and M. Brealey, of the United Kingdom Government, represented by J.E. Collins and K. Parker, and of the Commission, represented by K. Wiedner and N. Khan, at the hearing on 6 February 2001,

after hearing the Opinion of the Advocate General at the sitting on 22 March 2001,

gives the following

Judgment

1.
    By order of 16 July 1999, received at the Court on 30 November 1999, the Court of Appeal (England and Wales) (Civil Division) referred to the Court for a preliminary ruling under Article 234 EC four questions on the interpretation of Article 85 of the EC Treaty (now Article 81 EC) and other provisions of Community law.

2.
    The four questions have been raised in proceedings between Courage Ltd (hereinafter ‘Courage’) and Bernard Crehan, a publican, concerning unpaid supplies of beer.

Facts of the case and the questions referred for a preliminary ruling

3.
    In 1990, Courage, a brewery holding a 19% share of the United Kingdom market in sales of beer, and Grand Metropolitan plc (hereinafter ‘Grand Met’), a company with a range of catering and hotel interests, agreed to merge their leased public houses (hereinafter ‘pubs’). To this end, their respective pubs were transferred to Inntrepreneur Estates Ltd (hereinafter ‘IEL’), a company owned in equal shares by Courage and Grand Met. An agreement concluded between IEL and Courage provided that all IEL tenants had to buy their beer exclusively from Courage. Courage was to supply the quantities of beer ordered at the prices specified in the price lists applicable to the pubs leased by IEL.

4.
    IEL issued a standard form lease agreement to its tenants. While the level of rent could be the subject of negotiation with a prospective tenant, the exclusive purchase obligation (‘beer tie’) and the other clauses of the contract were not negotiable.

5.
    In 1991, Mr Crehan concluded two 20-year leases with IEL imposing an obligation to purchase from Courage. The rent, subject to a five-year upward-only rent review, was to be the higher of the rent for the immediately preceding period or the best open market rent obtainable for the residue of the term on the other terms of the lease. The tenant had to purchase a fixed minimum quantity of specified beers and IEL agreed to procure the supply of specified beer to the tenant by Courage at the prices shown in the latter's price list.

6.
    In 1993, Courage, the plaintiff in the main proceedings, brought an action for the recovery from Mr Crehan of the sum of GBP 15 266 for unpaid deliveries of beer. Mr Crehan contested the action on its merits, contending that the beer tie was contrary to Article 85 of the Treaty. He also counter-claimed for damages.

7.
    Mr Crehan contended that Courage sold its beers to independent tenants of pubs at substantially lower prices than those in the price list imposed on IEL tenants subject to a beer tie. He contended that this price difference reduced the profitability of tied tenants, driving them out of business.

8.
    The standard form lease agreement used by Courage, Grand Met and their subsidiaries was notified to the Commission in 1992. In 1993, the Commission published a notice under Article 19(3) of Council Regulation No 17: First Regulation implementing Articles 85 and 86 of the Treaty (OJ, English Special Edition, 1959-1962, p. 87), stating its intention to grant an exemption under Article 85(3) of the Treaty.

9.
    That notification was withdrawn in October 1997 following the introduction by IEL of a new standard form lease agreement, which was also notified to the Commission. The new lease is, however, not at issue in the main proceedings, as the actions brought concern the operation of the beer tie under the old lease.

10.
    The considerations which led the Court of Appeal to refer questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling were as follows.

11.
    According to the referring court, English law does not allow a party to an illegal agreement to claim damages from the other party. So, even if Mr Crehan's defence, that the lease into which he entered infringes Article 85 of the Treaty, were upheld, English law would bar his claim for damages.

12.
    Moreover, in a judgment which predated the present order for reference, the Court of Appeal had held, without considering it necessary to seek a ruling from the Court of Justice on the point, that Article 85(1) of the EC Treaty was intended to protect third parties, whether competitors or consumers, and not parties to the prohibited agreement. It was held that they were the cause, not the victims, of the restriction of competition.

13.
    The Court of Appeal points out that the Supreme Court of the United States of America held, in its decision in Perma Life Mufflers Inc. v International Parts Corp. 392 U.S. 134 (1968), that where a party to an anticompetitive agreement is in an economically weaker position he may sue the other contracting party for damages.

14.
    The Court of Appeal therefore raises the question of the compatibility with Community law of the bar in English law to Mr Crehan's claims set out at paragraph 6 above.

15.
    If Community law confers on a party to a contract liable to restrict or distort competition legal protection comparable to that offered by the law of the United States of America, the Court of Appeal points out that there might be tension between the principle of procedural autonomy and that of the uniform application of Community law.

16.
    In those circumstances, it decided to stay proceedings and refer the following questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

‘1.    Is Article 81 EC (ex Article 85) to be interpreted as meaning that a party to a prohibited tied house agreement may rely upon that article to seek relief from the courts from the other contracting party?

2.    If the answer to Question 1 is yes, is the party claiming relief entitled to recover damages alleged to arise as a result of his adherence to the clause in the agreement which is prohibited under Article 81?

3.    Should a rule of national law which provides that courts should not allow a person to plead and/or rely on his own illegal actions as a necessary step to recovery of damages be allowed as consistent with Community law;

4.    If the answer to Question 3 is that, in some circumstances, such a rule may be inconsistent with Community law, what circumstances should the national court take into consideration?’

The questions

17.
    By its first, second and third questions, which should be considered together, the referring court is asking essentially whether a party to a contract liable to restrict or distort competition within the meaning of Article 85 of the Treaty can rely on the breach of that provision before a national court to obtain relief from the other contracting party. In particular, it asks whether that party can obtain compensation for loss which he alleges to result from his being subject to a contractual clause contrary to Article 85 and whether, therefore, Community law precludes a rule of national law which denies a person the right to rely on his own illegal actions to obtain damages.

18.
    If Community law precludes a national rule of that sort, the national court wishes to know, by its fourth question, what factors must be taken into consideration in assessing the merits of such a claim for damages.

19.
    It should be borne in mind, first of all, that the Treaty has created its own legal order, which is integrated into the legal systems of the Member States and which their courts are bound to apply. The subjects of that legal order are not only the Member States but also their nationals. Just as it imposes burdens on individuals, Community law is also intended to give rise to rights which become part of their legal assets. Those rights arise not only where they are expressly granted by the Treaty but also by virtue of obligations which the Treaty imposes in a clearly defined manner both on individuals and on the Member States and the Community institutions (see the judgments in Case 26/62 Van Gend en Loos [1963] ECR 1, Case 6/64 Costa [1964] ECR 585 and Joined Cases C-6/90 and C-9/90 Francovich and Others [1991] ECR I-5357, paragraph 31).

20.
    Secondly, according to Article 3(g) of the EC Treaty (now, after amendment, Article 3(1)(g) EC), Article 85 of the Treaty constitutes a fundamental provision which is essential for the accomplishment of the tasks entrusted to the Community and, in particular, for the functioning of the internal market (judgment in Case C-126/97 Eco Swiss [1999] ECR I-3055, paragraph 36).

21.
    Indeed, the importance of such a provision led the framers of the Treaty to provide expressly, in Article 85(2) of the Treaty, that any agreements or decisions prohibited pursuant to that article are to be automatically void (judgment in Eco Swiss, cited above, paragraph 36).

22.
    That principle of automatic nullity can be relied on by anyone, and the courts are bound by it once the conditions for the application of Article 85(1) are met and so long as the agreement concerned does not justify the grant of an exemption under Article 85(3) of the Treaty (on the latter point, see inter alia Case 10/69 Portelange [1969] ECR 309, paragraph 10). Since the nullity referred to in Article 85(2) is absolute, an agreement which is null and void by virtue of this provision has no effect as between the contracting parties and cannot be set up against third parties (see the judgment in Case 22/71 Béguelin [1971] ECR 949, paragraph 29). Moreover, it is capable of having a bearing on all the effects, either past or future, of the agreement or decision concerned (see the judgment in Case 48/72 Brasserie de Haecht II [1973] ECR 77, paragraph 26).

23.
    Thirdly, it should be borne in mind that the Court has held that Article 85(1) of the Treaty and Article 86 of the EC Treaty (now Article 82 EC) produce direct effects in relations between individuals and create rights for the individuals concerned which the national courts must safeguard (judgments in Case 127/73 BRT and SABAM [1974] ECR 51, paragraph 16, (‘BRT I’) and Case C-282/95 P Guérin Automobiles v Commission [1997] ECR I-1503, paragraph 39).

24.
    It follows from the foregoing considerations that any individual can rely on a breach of Article 85(1) of the Treaty before a national court even where he is a party to a contract that is liable to restrict or distort competition within the meaning of that provision.

25.
    As regards the possibility of seeking compensation for loss caused by a contract or by conduct liable to restrict or distort competition, it should be remembered from the outset that, in accordance with settled case-law, the national courts whose task it is to apply the provisions of Community law in areas within their jurisdiction must ensure that those rules take full effect and must protect the rights which they confer on individuals (see inter alia the judgments in Case 106/77 Simmenthal [1978] ECR 629, paragraph 16, and in Case C-213/89 Factortame [1990] ECR I-2433, paragraph 19).

26.
    The full effectiveness of Article 85 of the Treaty and, in particular, the practical effect of the prohibition laid down in Article 85(1) would be put at risk if it were not open to any individual to claim damages for loss caused to him by a contract or by conduct liable to restrict or distort competition.

27.
    Indeed, the existence of such a right strengthens the working of the Community competition rules and discourages agreements or practices, which are frequently covert, which are liable to restrict or distort competition. From that point of view, actions for damages before the national courts can make a significant contribution to the maintenance of effective competition in the Community.

28.
    There should not therefore be any absolute bar to such an action being brought by a party to a contract which would be held to violate the competition rules.

29.
    However, in the absence of Community rules governing the matter, it is for the domestic legal system of each Member State to designate the courts and tribunals having jurisdiction and to lay down the detailed procedural rules governing actions for safeguarding rights which individuals derive directly from Community law, provided that such rules are not less favourable than those governing similar domestic actions (principle of equivalence) and that they do not render practically impossible or excessively difficult the exercise of rights conferred by Community law (principle of effectiveness) (see Case C-261/95 Palmisani [1997] ECR I-4025, paragraph 27).

30.
    In that regard, the Court has held that Community law does not prevent national courts from taking steps to ensure that the protection of the rights guaranteed by Community law does not entail the unjust enrichment of those who enjoy them (see, in particular, Case 238/78 Ireks-Arkady v Council and Commission [1979] ECR 2955, paragraph 14, Case 68/79 Just [1980] ECR 501, paragraph 26, and Joined Cases C-441/98 and C-442/98 Michaïlidis [2000] ECR I-7145, paragraph 31).

31.
    Similarly, provided that the principles of equivalence and effectiveness are respected (see Palmisani, cited above, paragraph 27), Community law does not preclude national law from denying a party who is found to bear significant responsibility for the distortion of competition the right to obtain damages from the other contracting party. Under a principle which is recognised in most of the legal systems of the Member States and which the Court has applied in the past (see Case 39/72 Commission v Italy [1973] ECR 101, paragraph 10), a litigant should not profit from his own unlawful conduct, where this is proven.

32.
    In that regard, the matters to be taken into account by the competent national court include the economic and legal context in which the parties find themselves and, as the United Kingdom Government rightly points out, the respective bargaining power and conduct of the two parties to the contract.

33.
    In particular, it is for the national court to ascertain whether the party who claims to have suffered loss through concluding a contract that is liable to restrict or distort competition found himself in a markedly weaker position than the other party, such as seriously to compromise or even eliminate his freedom to negotiate the terms of the contract and his capacity to avoid the loss or reduce its extent, in particular by availing himself in good time of all the legal remedies available to him.

34.
    Referring to the judgments in Case 23/67 Brasserie de Haecht [1967] ECR 127 and Case C-234/89 Delimitis [1991] ECR I-935, paragraphs 14 to 26, the Commission and the United Kingdom Government also rightly point out that a contract might prove to be contrary to Article 85(1) of the Treaty for the sole reason that it is part of a network of similar contracts which have a cumulative effect on competition. In such a case, the party contracting with the person controlling the network cannot bear significant responsibility for the breach of Article 85, particularly where in practice the terms of the contract were imposed on him by the party controlling the network.

35.
    Contrary to the submission of Courage, making a distinction as to the extent of the parties' liability does not conflict with the case-law of the Court to the effect that it does not matter, for the purposes of the application of Article 85 of the Treaty, whether the parties to an agreement are on an equal footing as regards their economic position and function (see inter alia Joined Cases 56/64 and 58/64 Consten and Grundig v Commission [1966] ECR 382). That case-law concerns the conditions for application of Article 85 of the Treaty while the questions put before the Court in the present case concern certain consequences in civil law of a breach of that provision.

36.
    Having regard to all the foregoing considerations, the questions referred are to be answered as follows:

-    a party to a contract liable to restrict or distort competition within the meaning of Article 85 of the Treaty can rely on the breach of that article to obtain relief from the other contracting party;

-    Article 85 of the Treaty precludes a rule of national law under which a party to a contract liable to restrict or distort competition within the meaning of that provision is barred from claiming damages for loss caused by performance of that contract on the sole ground that the claimant is a party to that contract;

-    Community law does not preclude a rule of national law barring a party to a contract liable to restrict or distort competition from relying on his own unlawful actions to obtain damages where it is established that that party bears significant responsibility for the distortion of competition.

Costs

37.
    The costs incurred by the United Kingdom, French, Italian and Swedish Governments and by the Commission, which have submitted observations to the Court, are not recoverable. Since these proceedings are, for the parties to the main proceedings, a step in the proceedings pending before the national court, the decision on costs is a matter for that court.

On those grounds,

THE COURT,

in answer to the questions referred to it by the Court of Appeal (England and Wales) (Civil Division) by order of 16 July 1999, hereby rules:

1.    A party to a contract liable to restrict or distort competition within the meaning of Article 85 of the EC Treaty (now Article 81 EC) can rely on the breach of that provision to obtain relief from the other contracting party.

2.    Article 85 of the Treaty precludes a rule of national law under which a party to a contract liable to restrict or distort competition within the meaning of that provision is barred from claiming damages for loss caused by performance of that contract on the sole ground that the claimant is a party to that contract.

3.    Community law does not preclude a rule of national law barring a party to a contract liable to restrict or distort competition from relying on his own unlawful actions to obtain damages where it is established that that party bears significant responsibility for the distortion of competition.

Rodríguez Iglesias

Gulmann
Wathelet

Skouris

Edward
Jann

Sevón

Macken
Colneric

Cunha Rodrigues

Timmermans

Delivered in open court in Luxembourg on 20 September 2001.

R. Grass

G.C. Rodríguez Iglesias

Registrar

President


1: Language of the case: English.