The Leader Column

Last Thursday night, the great and good of competition law gathered together at Brick Court Chambers for a secret powwow with the head honchos of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

Protected by Chatham House rules, the idea was that the little loves could have a brainstorming session with the OFT’s top brass, without anything they said being held against them during future cartel investigations.

Earlier this month, the regulator held an almost unprecedented joint oral hearing on its investigation into price-rigging on football shirts. This may sound like a rather dull procedural issue, but you won’t think that when your young relations’ birthdays come around and they want the new Manchester United kit. Plus, no lawyer could doubt that the format of a quasi-judicial investigation has a big impact on its final outcome.

It seemed that while lawyers involved with the case were tolerably happy with the format of the oral hearing, some felt confidential hearings were essential. Umbro, the company in most trouble on the investigation, and Sports Soccer, both asked for confidential oral hearings. The regulator will now go and make up its mind on what mix of confidential and communal hearings to use in the future.

The OFT fielded its best for the Brick Court event, including retiring director of competition enforcement Margaret Bloom, whose terrier-like determination will be sorely missed. Her milder replacement Vincent Smith was in tow, together with director of mergers Simon Priddis.

The OFT doesn’t always get it right – Priddis and deputy director general Penny Boys have questions to answer on the referral of the Safeway merger – but it remains a highly respected institution. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Lord Chancellor’s Department (LCD), at least with regard to the Commercial Court. As Naomi Rovnick reveals this week, plans for a new building are in disarray because the LCD is broke.

The cause is the parlous state of the Supreme Court’s accounts. The court made just 20 per cent of its fee target last year, a figure that must be deeply offensive to Gordon Brown’s pecuniary sensibilities. One solution is PFI, on the basis that if it’s good enough for the Tube, it’s good enough for the legal system. But, if you don’t want to pay Freshfields a reputed £40m to do the drafting, how about an alternative? If the LCD can cobble together the cash, it says it might take over Smithfields Meat Market. I just wonder if anyone there has looked at Farringdon’s property prices recently?