Budapest, 21 June 2023 - In its latest resolution for the uniformity of the law, the Curia confirmed the correctness of the position of the Hungarian Competition Authority (GVH) regarding competition decisions taken after the deadline: exceeding the deadline does not automatically result in the loss of the possibility to impose fines. The binding resolution of the Curia of Hungary (Curia) has settled an issue often disputed in the courts.
In the case of decisions taken by public authorities after the expiry of the time limit, it was the case law of the court for decades that if the procedural violation that occurred after the expiry of the time limit did not affect the merits of the case, it had no impact on the legality of the decision and thus on the fine imposed in the decision. This previous jurisprudence has changed in the so-called lead-acid battery case. In the light of the Constitutional Court decisions prior to the judgment, the acting chamber of the Curia ruled that in a competition procedure with a criminal law character, the application of a sanction, the imposition of a competition fine without extending the time limit for the submission of the case, is a violation of the fair administrative procedure. The GVH has criticised this interpretation of the law on a number of occasions and following the judgment the Constitutional Court of Hungary has also clarified the constitutional requirements relating to procedural time limits. However, the fined undertakings, when they challenged the GVH's decision in court, almost invariably invoked the above Curia judgment before the court, claiming that the authority had exceeded the procedural deadline, and thus considered the imposition of any fine after the expiry of the deadline to be unlawful.
The GVH's experts have consistently argued in articles and in ongoing court proceedings that the case law in the lead-acid battery case has become obsolete under the Constitutional Court's case law, that it differs from EU case law on similar issues and that it may also jeopardise the effective enforcement of the public interest in competition cases. In the meantime, the Curia has also clarified its earlier position, but the lead-acid battery case remains a precedent for the fined companies to rely on. The Curia of Hungary was in a position to explicitly take into account the above-mentioned changes in constitutional and curia jurisprudence, which were also invoked by the defendant, in the course of the review procedure of the X-ray machine cartel, a competition case before it. The panel of judges in the case therefore appealed to the Judicial Complaints Council of the Curia, indicating that it wished to depart from the decision of the Curia of Hungary in the lead-acid battery case published in the Collection of Judicial Decisions. In the case, the Prosecutor General also expressed its view in line with the GVH's interpretation of the law. The Judicial Complaints Board of the Curia upheld the motion of the Judicial Council, and accordingly established that a competition supervision fine may be imposed even if the time limit for filing a case is exceeded, in addition to the fact that the amount of the fine must be determined considering the damage caused by the delay. The Judicial Complaints Council of the Curia also ruled that the previous Curia decision in question can no longer be invoked as a precedent in the courts.
The resolution for the uniformity of the law - which is binding on Hungarian courts from the date of its publication in the Hungarian Gazette (Hungarian official journal), thus provided a clear interpretation of the law in cases of protracted litigation. This ultimately confirmed the position that the GVH has consistently taken to effectively protect the public interest in competition. Behaviour that infringes competition law will not go unpunished because of a procedural error. The jurisprudence of the GVH has recently changed so that in cases where it found that the procedural time limit requirement had been breached, it did not waive the imposition of fines in these cases either but took the lapse of time into account as a mitigating circumstance when determining the amount of the fine, which is in line with the recent case-law decision of the Curia.