1. This is an appeal from an order of the High Court (Kearns J.) refusing a number of interlocutory injunctions, the effect of which would have been to compel the respondent, until further order, to continue supplying or permitting the supply of “ Ready to Go Mobile Phones” to the appellant and treat the appellant as an authorised agent for this purpose.
2. There is a very substantial factual background to this application, but I am satisfied that for the purposes of considering the question of whether injunctions should be granted or not it is neither necessary nor desirable that I should set out detailed particulars of all the facts in this judgment. The following skeleton outline of facts is sufficient.
3. The appellant carried on the business of selling mobile phones in a number of outlets in the south of Ireland, mostly in Co. Kerry. He had a history of expanding his business and opening additional shops. The appellant maintains that at all material times as and from May, 1998 he acted as an authorised agent of the respondent. The system was that by arrangement with the respondent the appellant purchased prepaid “ Ready to Go” phones from a company called Sigma Telecom Limited, through which the “Ready to Go” mobile phones were exclusively channelled by the respondent. There was a different system and a different company involved in relation to contract or bill pay phones. The appellant alleges in his first grounding affidavit that the nature of his agency was that he bought the product from Eircell supply lines and that then he, as a retailer, brought customers to Eircell, whether by way of contract customers (bill payers) or by way of “ Ready to Go” customers. If, however, a customer connected to the Eircell network failed to pay his or her bill for a period of six months the respondent charged the appellant a claw back penalty. The appellant alleges that he attended agent conferences, arranged by the respondent, and that he was supplied with agent signs. He also had a special agent code number.
4. In the summer of 2000 a considerable problem of indebtedness had arisen between the respondent and the appellant when schemes were entered into for the repayment of the debt owing to the respondent by the appellant. Around about the same time the respondent demanded that the appellant enter into standard form agency agreements which were prepared, and indeed, it is suggested that as part and parcel of the rescheduling of the indebtedness the appellant undertook to sign these agreements. However, in the event, the appellant refused to do so allegedly on the grounds that the proposed agent’s agreement was for a period of six months and might be renewed for a further period of up to six months. The appellant claimed that in the context of his liabilities under commercial leases etc. in relation to his shops, these periods were too short and not viable from his point of view. The respondent then threatened to cease dealing with the appellant, but despite this threat the appellant claims that he continued to purchase the respondent’s goods from Sigma Telecom and he has exhibited a statement dated 26th of November, 2000 bearing this out. It is unnecessary to go into all the details of what happened then. It is sufficient to state that at a stage when the appellant wanted to make a large order for the Christmas sales the respondent refused to allow the Ready to Go Phones to be supplied to him. The appellant then instituted these proceedings and moved for interlocutory injunctions because he claimed that his trade would be ruined particularly having regard to the loss of the Christmas business.
6. In considering the correctness or otherwise of that judgment it is important to address the argument, which was put forward in both courts, that what was being sought here were mandatory interlocutory injunctions and that on the well established principles the court should be very slow to grant such an injunction. Kearns J. does not really refer to this argument in his judgment and he may have considered, as I do, that it really has no force in this case. There are different kinds of mandatory injunctions. Undoubtedly, if a plaintiff is looking for a mandatory injunction requiring a wall to be knocked down he may in fact be attempting to obtain at an interlocutory stage what effectively is his final relief. Once the wall is gone it may not be practicable to rebuild it. That is the classic form of mandatory injunction which a court will rarely grant. Although the injunctions sought in this case may arguably be classified as “ mandatory” they are not of that type. They are directed simply towards retaining the status quo pending the outcome of the action, which is the normal purpose of a prohibitive injunction. I see no reason therefore why the traditional principles would not be relevant to this case.
8. On the first element I take a different view than that taken by the learned High Court judge. It seems quite clear that the plaintiff has an arguable case, at least that he had some kind of contractual relationship with Eircell. The express or implied terms of that oral or implied agreement would in the main have been those referred to by the appellant in his affidavit. It was not a term of that agency agreement that he had to enter into some kind of written agency agreement, the form of which was prepared by the respondent whenever requested by the respondent to do so. Indeed, even if there was such a term it is doubtful that it would be enforceable because it would be effectively a contract to enter into another contract. Assuming therefore that the appellant had a contract with the respondent that contract is still alive unless either of the following two sets of circumstances apply:
10. It would seem on the documentation before this court that the appellant must, at the very least, have an arguable case that neither of the above sets of circumstances occurred and that therefore, the arguable contract, if it exists, continues to exist. But if it does continue to exist, then no matter what collateral disputes were in train between the appellant and respondent in relation to other monies owing it, was a breach of the agency agreement to prevent the supply of the Ready to Go handsets to the appellant. There must clearly, therefore, be a serious issue to be tried on the breach of contract issue.
11. As to whether there is a serious issue to be tried in relation to allegations which were also made in the proceedings that the respondent has been in breach of the Competition Act, 1991, as amended, I can only say that there is not enough evidence before this court to enable it to form a definite view on that, particularly in the light of the affidavit of the economist Mr. Moore McDowell. The onus is on the appellant and in my view the appellant has not, at this stage, produced sufficient evidence to satisfy this court that as a matter of probability that there is a serious issue to be tried under the Competition Act. But it may well be that at the trial of this action the appellant will be able to expand his evidence so that the competition point becomes a live issue. Nothing in this judgment is to be taken as expressing a view that there is definitely no cause of action arising from the Competition Act, 1991. But on the papers, at present before the court, it has not been established sufficiently that there is a serious issue to be tried on this matter to enable an injunction to be granted.
12. I move now to the question of whether damages would be an adequate remedy. The learned High Court judge clearly thought it was and I would have to agree with him. In every case in which there is a breach of an agency or distribution agreement the task of assessing damages will be difficult, but that does not mean that it cannot be done. The respondent is a viable company and is financially in a position to meet any award in damages that may be made against it. The appellant’s loss is essentially financial. An interesting feature of the case is that much of the argument put forward on behalf of the appellant in the High Court was that the Christmas trade was absolutely vital and that without it, he would go out of business. The plaintiff is still in business. But even if he does go out of business, as a result of losing the agency, his losses can be assessed in money terms. There is a further reason why I think that damages are an adequate remedy. If there is an implied or oral agency agreement, that agreement would be terminable upon reasonable notice and I doubt very much that the appellant would be able successfully to argue that the length of that notice could be more than six months. Depending on the evidence of the trade it might be less. Any damages to be assessed therefore would be confined within a limited period. I am not, of course, expressing any view as to how damages are to be assessed in the event of a finding of infringement of the Competition Act as that is not before this court. But in so far as the appellant is complaining of breach of contract the damages would be limited in the manner which I have suggested. That should not make them too difficult to assess.
13. I would, therefore, affirm the order of the High Court. But even if I had doubts as to whether damages were an adequate remedy I am satisfied that the balance of convenience favours refusing the injunction. First of all there is the well known principle that in general the courts will not grant an injunction which would involve ongoing supervision. A court, therefore, is very slow to grant injunctions in either service contracts or trading contracts because it is very difficult to assess, at any given time thereafter, as to whether such injunctions are being obeyed or not. It is also usually impracticable and undesirable that two parties be compelled to trade with one another when one, for reasons which are perfectly rational, does not want to carry on such trading. The appellant’s bad debt situation and the unsatisfactory nature of his relationship with the respondent make it prima facie reasonable, that the respondent would not want to continue trading with him and I doubt that it would be practicable for a court to force such continued trading.