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State aid damages claim dismissed by High Court


On 25 November 2020, HHJ Keyser QC, sitting as a judge of the High Court in the Competition List of the Business and Property Courts (Chancery Division) granted Durham County Council ‘reverse’ summary judgment on its defence against a claim for damages, declaratory and injunctive relief brought The Durham Company Limited trading as Max Recycle.

Max Recycle runs a commercial waste collection and recycling business in north east England. It claimed that it was being undercut by the Council’s statutory commercial waste collection services which are provided for a ‘reasonable charge’ in discharge of its duty under section 45 Environmental Protection Act 1990. Max Recycle claimed that the Council was using its public sources of revenue to cross-subsidise those commercial waste collection services and that this alleged cross-subsidy constituted unlawful State aid as it had not been notified to the European Commission as required by the last sentence of Article 108(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The Council’s defence was that any alleged breach of the State aid rules was not, on any view, sufficiently serious under the EU Francovich principle and therefore did not give rise to a claim for damages. The Court agreed. If there were any breach, it was not an inexcusable breach for Francovich purposes and so did not give rise to a right to claim damages.

Max Recycle’s alternative claim that it did not need, as a matter of law, to plead a sufficiently serious breach was also rejected: Francovich applies so far as State liability is concerned.

Claims for declaratory and injunctive relief were also rejected because by the time of any trial of the claim the EU State aid rules would have ceased to apply to the Council and so such relief would be devoid of purpose.

The judgment is here.

Aidan Robertson QC acted for the successful Council instructed by DWF Law LLP

An additional limitation point about the availability of Francovich damages is worth noting (although it did not arise in this case).  Francovich damages claims are now subject to a special limitation period expiring in December 2022. This is because Francovich liability was abolished under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 with effect from 11pm on 31 December 2020 by Schedule 1, paragraph 4. However, claimants wishing to bring a Francovich claim for damage arising before Exit day have two years from that date to do so under Schedule 8, paragraph 39(7).