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Disputes round-up: Retailers beat Visa/Mastercard on fees as Stewarts launches financial crime unit

The UK’s largest disputes specialist, Stewarts, has helped secure a win in the high-profile Visa/Mastercard interchange fees case less than a week after launching a financial crime department.

On Wednesday (4 July), a host of British retailers represented by Stewarts, Mishcon de Reya and Morgan Lewis & Bockius  won a Court of Appeal ruling against the financial services giants.

The MasterCard/Visa case concerned interchange fees, which are charges made by the card-issuers on payments by debit or credit cards in store or online. Sainsbury’s, Asda, Argos and Morrisons sued the card companies alleging the fees were an unlawful restriction of competition based on EU law.

The retailers’ case was dismissed by Justice Popplewell last year, when he ruled the charges were necessary to MasterCard and Visa’s business operations and were below an objectionable level.

But the retailers appealed, with two of the appeals brought from the Commercial Court and one from the Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT). Sainsbury’s was represented by Mishcon and Morgan Lewis, while Asda, Argos and Morrisons were advised by Stewarts. Jones Day acted for MasterCard and Linklaters represented Visa.

This week’s judgment overturned last year’s decision, with Master of the Rolls Sir Terence Etherton ruling that the fees restricted competition and were therefore unlawful. He ruled that all three cases should be sent back to the CAT due to its specialism in competition matters.

Elaine Whiteford, competition partner at Covington & Burling, commented on the combination of the three cases: ‘Given that competition litigation is characterised by multiple claims being brought by different parties in parallel and that this risk of different approaches by different courts arises in many cases, it may well be that the Court of Appeal’s approach provides a strong signal of how such claims will be handled in future.’

The win capped off a successful period for Stewarts, which announced last Friday (29 June) it had hired Richard Kovalevsky QC as a partner to head up a new financial crime department.

Kovalevsky joins as the firm’s 62nd partner after 13 years at 2 Bedford Row. He is recognised as a leading individual in the Legal 500 for fraud work, and took silk in 2003.

Managing partner John Cahill said Stewarts plans ‘to establish a leading financial crime team’ with the hire, citing overlaps with pre-existing practices such as civil fraud, asset recovery and tax litigation.

Elsewhere, HFW made a disputes hire in the form of Emmanuel Roger France, a dispute resolution specialist and founding partner of Fieldfisher’s Brussels office.

France joins HFW’s own Brussels base, bringing with him more than 19 years’ experience in fraud, asset recovery and white-collar crime matters. It was the firm’s second lateral disputes hire this week, after the firm brought in Trowers & Hamlins international disputes head James Harbridge to its Dubai office on Monday (2 July).