The only thing the lawyers assembled in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court last month knew for sure was that the air conditioning wasn’t working. “Is it getting warm in here?” magistrate Charlie Rozencwajg asked as the temperature in the snug courtroom continued to rise. “Feel free to take off your jackets.” None of the well-dressed barristers took up the offer: this prosecution was going to take them to the end of the year and they weren’t willing to show any loss of composure so soon.
It was the start of a prosecution set to revolutionise the way we see the conspiratorial price-fixing and bid-rigging known as “cartel” activity. For the first time in a hundred years, Australians could be jailed for illegal business agreements with competitors, a prospect likely to send a chill down the collective spine of local boardrooms.
This isn’t the first prosecution under Australia’s 2009 criminal cartel laws. Two Japanese shipping companies have already been convicted, with one of them still waiting to find out the size of the penalty. But it’s the first time that an Australian company has faced a prosecution and the first time individuals have been charged with offences carrying a maximum jail sentence of ten years.
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