UK's Supreme Court rules against Mastercard, Visa in retailers' fees battle

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's highest court on Wednesday upheld an earlier Court of Appeal ruling that credit card companies Visa V.N and Mastercard MA.N restricted competition in the way they set fees for retailers, opening the way for them to seek compensation.

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The case, which dates back to 1992, was brought by retailers Sainsbury's SBRY.L, Morrisons MRW.L Asda WMT.N and Argos and relates to the charges Visa V.N and Mastercard MA.N levy on the retailers when cardholders make a transaction - so called default multilateral interchange fees (MIFs).

The UK Supreme Court upheld the finding of the Court of Appeal in July 2018 that the MIFs charged within the Visa and MasterCard payment card schemes was an unlawful restriction of both European Union and UK competition law.

The ruling means the retailers can proceed to a trial to decide compensation.

Morgan Lewis partner Frances Murphy, the lead counsel for Sainsbury’s, said retailers could potentially receive billions of pounds in damages.

“Sainsbury’s will now be seeking to recover the full amount of the unlawful charges it has incurred,” Murphy said.

Kate Pollock, head of competition litigation at Stewarts, which represented Morrisons, Asda and Argos, said her clients “look forward to a swift resolution of the matter without further delay.”

However, Mastercard said the Supreme Court’s decision was not a final ruling and there will be further court hearings to determine the key issues raised.

It said these hearings will most likely not take place until 2021.

“We continue to firmly believe that retailers of all sizes derive real value from our network,” it said.

Visa said it was “disappointed that the Supreme Court did not agree with the previous High Court ruling that Visa’s UK interchange complies with competition law.”

“Visa supports the decision to send the matter to a specialist tribunal so that the evidence can be properly considered.”

Reporting by James Davey and Huw Jones, editing by Louise Heavens