So-called “excessive price” prohibitions are premised on a theory of harm that is generally rejected in competition law. Indeed, Canada’s Competition Act does not even contain a prohibition against excessive pricing. Among the many reasons for not prohibiting excessive prices are that to do so would undermine investment incentives (both of firms already in the market and potential entrants). Further, the phenomenon of excessive prices, in the absence of exclusionary conduct, is generally viewed as a temporary phenomenon that will be corrected by the market. Also, the legal uncertainty associated with the vagueness of the ‘excessive’ element in the concept could easily result in regulatory overreach.
In the context of COVID-19, the traditional arguments against prohibiting excessive prices have given way to a more consumer-oriented approach with respect to those supplying consumers directly. In response to concerns that retailers may be incentivized to substantially increase prices for products critical to the COVID-19 response, three Canadian provinces (i.e. British Columbia, Ontario & Nova Scotia) have specifically prohibited selling essential goods at unconscionable prices, or at prices markedly higher than fair market value. Other provinces appear to be more actively seeking to enforce pre-existing price gouging prohibitions in their consumer protection legislation, particularly in regards to necessary goods.
Yet, as already noted, it is unclear what constitutes an ‘excessive’ or ‘unconscionable’ price. Despite the fact that some provinces have had prohibitions on price gouging in their consumer protection legislation for decades, those provisions have been rarely used and scarcely considered by Canadian courts. At the same time, failing to comply with these provisions can have serious consequences, including financial penalties, restitution and reputational harm – and in some cases criminal fines and jail time. There is also the possibility a class action lawsuit could be instituted by a consumer on behalf of a class of consumers. What follows is a description of the price gouging laws of each Canadian province, as well as a description of their enforcement approach, where available, in order to help businesses understand how to avoid liability in respect of this particularly vague area of law.
Continue Reading Price Gouging Prohibitions across Canada