The European Commission has appointed two new hearing officers to deal with the rising tide of merger and antitrust investigations.
Serge Durande and Karen Williams will take up the new posts. Both Durande and Williams are well thought of by Brussels lawyers. They come from the Directorate-General Competition, where Durande was head of the antitrust units dealing with financial services and transport. Williams was a case manager in the merger task force. Under the commission's new mandate the pair will report directly to competition commissioner Mario Monti rather than to the competition directorate. The appointments follow a decision by the commission earlier this year to beef up the role of hearing officers who safeguard the rights of companies under investigation. Hearing officers have been given new powers to protect defendant companies in the investigation procedure. One of their most important roles is to ensure protection of confidential documents and business secrets, and get defendants adequate access to the commission's case files. A particular concern of competition lawyers is that their clients' confidential business information can leak out during investigations. Herbert Smith competition partner Stephen Kinsella said the decision to make the officers more independent of the investigating authorities was a positive one. He said: "In the past, they have generally tended to side with the commission." Monti pledged to bolster the hearing officer role when he was appointed as Competition Commissioner in 1999 and the appointment of the new officers should finally bring some of his proposals to fruition.