Pat Edwards is on the lookout for new talent. As the head of the Office of Fair Trading’s (OFT) legal services division, she is all too aware that the independent government body’s profile and powers are increasing, and that her team of lawyers needs to expand at a similar rate if it is ever to keep up with the workload.
Pieces of legislation such as the Competition Act 1998 have significantly increased the OFT lawyers’ caseload, and with the Enterprise Bill containing, among other things, a criminal offence for cartels due to become law this spring, the OFT has decided to swell its legal ranks later on this year from 27 to 32.
Roughly speaking, OFT lawyers fall into two divisions – the competition experts and consumer champions – although Edwards claims that a crossover between them is entirely feasible. Edwards herself is one of a rare breed as she manages to straddle both hemispheres.
But considering that she has to lead her entire legal team while advising OFT Director General John Vickers and all of his staff across the whole range of the OFT’s functions, it comes as no real surprise that she likes to stay so well informed.
Edwards is used to the demands that the Government makes on its lawyers, having spent all of her working life within its legal departments. After reading law at King’s College London she was called to the bar in 1967, but made a deliberate decision to steer well clear of private practice.
“I’m not typical of the OFT’s lawyers in that I’ve had no experience of private practice,” she emphasises. “My colleagues all come from a diverse range of backgrounds. But I made a conscious decision not to go into private practice. The quality of work is better in the Government Legal Service and you get much greater responsibility.”
Edwards’ first appointment was to the legal staff of the Criminal Appeal Office in 1965, where she stayed for seven years. In 1972 she became deputy assistant registrar of the Court of Appeal, and following a two-year secondment to the Legal Secretariat to the Law Officers, Edwards completed a 17-year stint at the Home Office as a legal adviser, before taking up her current position at the OFT in February 1996.
Such is the scope of the OFT’s remit, she believes there can be no such thing as a typical day. Duties for those working on the competition side of the division can range from obtaining High Court warrants to allow so-called ‘dawn raids’ on unfair business practitioners to take place, to advising on mergers.
Meanwhile, according to Edwards, lawyers in the consumer branch are required to use the OFT’s growing arsenal of statutory powers to best ensure that “trading malpractices cannot flourish”.
A slight tinge of regret colours her voice when she says that her present responsibilities to the OFT management board have taken her away from actual lawyering. “I’m personally unable to get involved in the cases we deal with anymore, but I’m always available to give consultation,” she says.
Another feature of the forthcoming Enterprise Bill is a raft of Stop Now Orders (a European Commission directive), which sounds rather like a governmental indigestion remedy in that they allow lawyers to obtain “rapid relief against malpractice”. Along with other changes, they will pose a brand new set of challenges for the OFT’s lawyers.
With its mantra of “making markets work well for consumers”, the OFT is officially charged with ensuring that the public has a “genuine and enduring power” in the marketplace. Edwards is proud of the impact the body, which last year had a budget of £50m, has had so far.
One case that gave her “particular pleasure” was when the Restrictive Practices Court put an end to a 30-year-old ban which exempted branded over-the-counter medicines from resale price maintenance. As a result of the OFT’s battle for consumer rights, household-name medicines are now priced more competitively, saving the public millions of pounds each year.
“Within hours of that judgment being made, prices were falling by 40 per cent plus,” Edwards recalls. “You get to see a very direct result of your work here and that gives us considerable satisfaction.”
In March last year, the OFT made its first finding of a breach under the terms of the 1998 Competition Act. It ruled that Napp Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge-based company, had abused its dominant market position by supplying drugs to cancer patients in the local community at “excessively high prices”, while selling the same drug to hospitals at a reduced rate in order to block out its competitors.
Although the Competition Commission Appeal Tribunal agreed that Napp was guilty of the breach, it reduced the fine from £3.21m to £2.2m, but still awarded the OFT its first victory under the new powers.
Edwards is pretty sure that most of the general public will be aware of the fight that her department puts up on its behalf.
For example, many mobile phone users now benefit from an OFT ruling which forced mobile phone companies to reduce their cancellation periods from almost one year to a matter of months.
“We do work in a very high-profile office and you’d be hard put to find a day when there were not several references to the OFT in the news. Some issues are not trumpeted enough, but we think most people are aware of what we do,” Edwards says.
Certainly, the business community seems to have wised up quickly to the extent of the OFT’s legal reach.
In one recent case, OFT lawyers contacted a company displaying adverts “misleadingly” claiming to offer customers interest-free credit, when in fact there was a liability to pay interest, according to Edwards.
“They changed it very quickly,” she recalls.
As the OFT prefers to absorb most of its legal work in-house and sends the majority to the Treasury Solicitors, only a sliver of work is ever farmed out to external agencies, and even then it is usually offered only to independent barristers.
“As a public sector body, quite a lot of the issues we deal with wouldn’t occur in private firms,” says Edwards. “There may well be a conflict of interests if we did [give work to law firms], although I think they’d be more concerned about that than us.”
Given the nature of the OFT’s remit and the fact that many of its powers are still relatively new in legislative terms – or are even still in the process of being created – its lawyers are often faced with uncharted legal territory.
As a result, the current job advertisements for the posts in the legal division are for lawyers with the ability to “assimilate quickly new areas of law and apply knowledge in a constructive and innovative way”, and Edwards, who says she is “extremely happy” in her job, is confident that the office will find them.
“It’s an exciting place to work and I think there will undoubtedly be great opportunities for us in the future,” she says.
Head of legal
Office of Fair Trading
|Organisation||Office of Fair Trading|
|Legal capability||27 (soon to rise to 32)|
|Head of legal||Pat Edwards|
|Reporting to||OFT Director General John Vickers|
|Main location for lawyers||London|
|Main Adviser||Treasury Solicitor’s Department|