Lenghts of proceedings: 15 months are enough

Two companies brought actions before the General Court on 23 February 2006, seeking the annulment of a decision adopted by the Commission in a case concerning a cartel. The General Court dismissed those actions by judgments of 16 November 2011. On appeal, the Court of Justice, by judgments of 26 November 2013, upheld the judgments of the General Court but noted however that the two companies could bring actions for damages seeking compensation for possible damage which they may have suffered as a result of the excessive length of the proceedings before the General Court.

By judgment T-577/14 of January 10, 2107, the Court awarde damages of €47 064.33 to the companies for the material harm suffered and damages of €5 000 for the non-material harm.  This is only a small part of the € 4 million claimed but with its judgement, the Court made an important statement.

The EU may I, cur non-contractual liability when three cumulative conditions are fulfilled, namely (1) the institutions’ conduct must be unlawful, (2) actual damage must have been suffered and (3) there must be a causal link between the conduct and the damage pleaded.

As regards the first condition, the Court considered that the right to adjudication within a reasonable period, enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, was breached as a result of the excessive length of the proceedings. They lasted for more than five years and nine months, even in the field of competition law, a field which is characterised by a greater degree of complexity than that of other types of cases. According to the Court, a period of fifteen months between the end of the written part of the procedure and the opening of the oral part of the procedure generally constitutes an appropriate period.

Nevertheless, the Court considered that the parallel treatment of related cases may justify an increase in the length of the proceedings, by a period of one month per additional related case, the 46 months of the case at stake were too long even under consideration that 12 actions had to be treated in parallel.

The Court thus concluded that a period of 26 months (15 months plus 11 months) between the end of the written phase of the procedure and the opening of the oral part of the procedure was appropriate. The remaining 20 months of inactivity of the Court were not justified.

The excessive length of the proceedings caused both material harm (the payment of bank guarantee costs) and non-material harm (the state of uncertainty in which the two companies found themselves).

The decision may still be appealed.