Ruling deals devastating blow to OFT

LAWMAKERS have called yesterday’s decision to drop criminal proceedings against current and former British Airways executives as a “big blow” to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

The consumer watchdog was forced to drop its price-fixing case after a mountain of documents, which had originally gone unnoticed by the OFT during an investigation, were discovered.

Lawyers criticised the conduct of the prosecution and called it damaging to the OFT because it proves that prosecuting a criminal case is difficult and the utmost diligence is needed. Simmons & Simmons lawyer Patrick Boylan said: “This is a big blow to the OFT. Although it doesn’t call the cartel offence itself into question, it does show the difficulty in prosecuting a criminal case.”

Under the Enterprise Act of 2002, the OFT was granted the power to take criminal measures and this most recent case would have marked the first time the consumer watchdog had successfully prosecuted a party for price-fixing under criminal procedures.

The OFT admitted responsibility for its part in the oversight, which it said had come at a time when the UK criminal cartel regime was still relatively new.

“By terminating the case early the judge clearly demonstrated severe disapproval of the way prosecution handled [things],” said Trevor Soames, a lawyer at Howrey.