Ian Norris, the former Morgan Crucible chief executive, on Thursday took his battle against extradition to the US on price-fixing charges to the House of Lords, in a case that threatens to expose dozens of British executives to similar prosecutions.
The US government has been trying to extradite Mr Norris for the past five years for allegedly participating in a global cartel on carbon parts.
The 64-year-old businessman on Thursday launched a last-ditch appeal in a case that now hinges on whether the conduct he is accused of was actually a crime.
Mr Norris is accused of colluding with competitors to fix the price of carbon brushes between 1989 and 2000. However, because the cartel allegedly operated before the introduction of the Enterprise Act, which outlawed price-fixing in the UK, he has instead been charged with the English common law offence of conspiracy to defraud.
Mr Norris has argued that the American indictment against him contains no allegation of dishonesty or deception, making it unlawful for him to be extradited under the banner of fraud.
The US government, by contrast, claims that merely participating in a “secret” agreement to fix prices is dishonest and can be prosecuted as conspiracy to defraud.
The issue is more than a technical point of law – the Norris case has far-reaching implications for executives who may have been involved in cartel activity both before and after the introduction of the Enterprise Act in 2003.
Mr Norris would be the first foreigner extradited to the US on price-fixing charges.
It is also the first time the House of Lords will consider Britain’s controversial “fast-track” extradition arrangements, which allow the US government to extradite suspects without producing supporting evidence of a crime.
Leading business and legal groups have attacked the regime as unbalanced and unfair, leaving British citizens exposed to the increasingly “long-arm” of US law. The extradition of three former NatWest bankers to Texas on Enron-related charges in 2006 triggered widespread, albeit unsuccessful, calls for the arrangements to be changed.
Alistair Graham, Mr Norris’s lawyer, has called the case a “travesty of justice”, noting that his client has never been allowed to examine more than a brief outline of the charges against him.
The US Department of Justice has not been shy in identifying Mr Norris as a key target in its efforts to combat foreign cartel activity. As recently as last September, the department’s antitrust division cited the British government’s “co-operation” on the Norris case as a symbol of a toughened international stance against price-fixing.
Thursday’s arguments before the law lords centred on whether parliament would have introduced specific anti-cartel legislation in the form of the Enterprise Act if such activity were already captured by the conspiracy to defraud offence.
The issue lies at the heart not only of the Norris case, but other possible prosecutions targeting antitrust violations.
The Serious Fraud Office is already pursuing a group of generic drug companies and executives for allegedly conspiring to fix the price of prescription drugs in the late 1990s, before the Enterprise Act came into force.