Have I spoken about the case of Roxborough v Rothmans of Pall Mall Australia Limited  HCA 68 on this blog before? If not, I’m surprised, because it’s one of my bug-bears.
Put briefly, tobacco wholesalers collected excise tax to pay to the State government. This tax was forwarded from tobacco retailers, who in turn charged the general public extra on the price of tobacco products. The retailers had collected the tax from the consumers, and had forwarded the tax to the wholesalers, but the wholesalers had not yet purchased excise licences from the NSW government when the High Court declared that state excise taxes were unconstitutional. There was a whole heap of unconstitutional tax money up for grabs. So the retailers sued the wholesalers to get the tax back. And they succeeded.
Here we have a problem. Can you see it? The retailers are not the real losers in this situation. The real losers are the consumers, the every day people who paid extra for their cigarettes. So whether it was the wholesalers or the retailers who kept the tax, the winner would get a windfall.
How can we give a fair recompense to the members of the public who had been overcharged for the price of their cigarettes? It would be almost impossible to prove how much consumers had been overcharged in that time.
I have always been a fan of creating some kind of trust for the benefit of the consumers. But then, what would be for the benefit of tobacco consumers? Maybe some kind of trust to recompense consumers, their families and the general public for the medical costs that they will have to incur as a result of tobacco related diseases? That way, it would be for the benefit of all.
There’s no way as the law presently stands that a court could do that. However, both American and Canadian law have developed in a way that enables a court to administer the proceeds of a class action according to the cy pres doctrine. That is, the court might not be able to compensate each wronged consumer precisely, but they could administer the money for the benefit of the wronged consumer for a purpose that comes as close as possible to helping all.
Recently, the Victorian Law Reform Commission has been considering proposals to enact provisions allowing Victorian courts to do this in its First Exposure Draft on Civil Reforms (pages 42 – 47 for those interested). I note that they consider precisely the sort of mechanism I proposed above and believe that courts should have the power to make such an arrangement. I prefer putting money into a cy pres scheme rather than putting it into some kind of a Justice Fund (which is another proposal), but I agree with the VLRC that there should be a broad discretion on the part of judges to choose how they administer the money.
All these considerations returned to my mind again with the recent Federal Court ruling against cardboard box magnate Richard Pratt. Visy was found to have entered into a price-fixing arrangement with its main rival, Amcor, so that they could set the price at a higher level than would occur if genuine competition were present. Apparently companies who have purchased Visy and Amcor products have commenced a class action, and have been greatly heartened by Justice Heerey’s ruling.
But here again: who are the real losers in this scenario? It is the general public, to whom the puchasers of Visy and Amcor products would have passed on any extra costs to the consumer. As Graeme Samuels, head of the ACCC said, “It was a premeditated fraud on Australian consumers. Anyone in the past who has bought a block of chocolate or a piece of fruit packed in a box made by Visy or Amcor has probably been ripped off.”
This is where another of my favourite beasts, a profit-stripping remedy, could come in useful. I would like consumer groups to bring an action to strip Visy and Amcor of ill-gotten profits gained through price-fixing and then ask the court administer the funds in a cy pres scheme for the benefit of the public (eg, to help people who are struggling to afford food and basic necessities).