Most of us think of the OFT as dealing with ‘big issues’ in competition, such as reports on anti-competitive or unfair practices. However, the OFT is responsible for the enforcement of a whole range of competition matters.
The OFT has indicated that it has no intention of being a champion of individuals who feel aggrieved with a supplier. It is, however, quite willing to act where there is a general case for the protection of consumers at large. In the latter case, the OFT is likely to undertake an investigation once it is satisfied that a prima facie case exists that there is anti-competitive or unfair behaviour. It is the range of powers which have been given to the OFT to use in the course of its investigations which might well give pause for thought.
- the right to enter premises and inspect them without a warrant;
- the right to demand that documents are produced and explained to its inspectors (and to demand responses in writing);
- the right to seize documents and goods with or without a warrant; and
- the right to carry out a search of premises if in possession of a warrant.
The OFT is empowered to bring in anyone it reasonably thinks might be able to assist with its enquiries and all that is required for it to exercise its powers is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that competition law has been broken or is likely to be.
It is a criminal offence to fail to cooperate with or to obstruct an officer of the OFT in the exercise of their legal duties.
Normally, two days’ written notice of an inspection will be given. However, even if no notice is given, the OFT’s guidelines provide that an inspection will not normally be commenced, goods will not normally be removed, nor will a caution be given until legal advisers are present, unless this will cause undue delay. However, where notice of the inspection has been given or the business has in-house legal advisers, the inspection will commence as soon as the formalities of provision of identification etc. have occurred.