Vodafone Ltd v The Office of Communications

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtCourt of Appeal (Civil Division)
JudgeSir Geoffrey Vos,Lord Justice Underhill,Lord Justice Simon
Judgment Date19 February 2020
Neutral Citation[2020] EWCA Civ 183
Docket NumberCase No: A4/2019/1337-1340
Date19 February 2020

[2020] EWCA Civ 183





[2019] EWHC 1234 (Comm)

Rolls Building

Royal Courts of Justice

Fetter Lane, London, EC4A 1NL





Lord Justice Simon

Case No: A4/2019/1337-1340

Vodafone Limited
Telefónica UK Limited EE Limited
Hutchison 3G UK Limited
The Office of Communications

Ms Monica Carss-Frisk QC and Ms Emily Neill (instructed by Towerhouse LLP) for Vodafone Ltd

Mr Tom de la Mare QC and Mr Tom Richards (instructed by DWF Law LLP) for Telefónica UK Ltd

Mr Daniel Cashman (instructed directly) for Hutchison 3G Ltd

Mr Steven Elliott QC and Mr Philip Woolfe (instructed by BT Legal) for EE Ltd

Mr Tom Weisselberg QC, Mr Ajay Ratan and Mr Andrew Trotter (instructed directly) for OFCOM

Hearing dates: 28 th, 29 th and 30 th January 2020

Approved Judgment

I direct that pursuant to CPR PD 39A para 6.1 no official shorthand note shall be taken of this Judgment and that copies of this version as handed down may be treated as authentic.

Sir Geoffrey Vos, Chancellor of the High Court:



The issue before the court in this appeal is beguilingly simple. The 2015 Regulations 1 made by The Office of Communications, the defendant and appellant (“Ofcom”), were quashed by the Court of Appeal on 22 nd November 2017 in EE Ltd v. Office of Communications [2017] EWCA Civ 1873, [2018] 1 WLR 1868 (the “JR decision”). As a result of the JR decision, it is common ground that 4 mobile network operators, the respondents (the “MNOs”), are entitled to recover, by way of restitution, some part of the payments they made to Ofcom towards annual licence fees (“ALFs”) for licences issued under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006 (the “WTA 2006”). 2 The issue is simply: what part of the ALFs can the MNOs recover as a matter of law?


Mr Adrian Beltrami QC, sitting as a deputy judge of the High Court (“the judge”), decided that the MNOs could recover the difference between the ALFs paid under the quashed 2015 Regulations and the amounts that were legitimately due to Ofcom under the existing and still valid 2011 Regulations. 3


Ofcom submits that the MNOs are only entitled to recover the difference between what the MNOs paid under the quashed 2015 Regulations and the amounts that Ofcom would have charged the MNOs, had it acted lawfully by way of executive action, instead of implementing the ultra vires 2015 Regulations.


All the facts and the sums in issue were agreed before the judge, and are agreed before us. These sums are shown in the following table reproduced from the judge's judgment (the “judgment”):-


Amounts paid under 2015 Regulations

Amounts payable under 2011 Regulations

Net sum


















The legal arguments addressed to us were wide-ranging. In essence, however, Ofcom contended that the authorities demonstrate that a counterfactual approach is appropriate in this area of the law of restitution. The court can look at what fees Ofcom would have provided for under regulations it could and would have made under the existing primary legislation in order to determine the net sum that the MNOs are entitled to receive by way of restitution. Ofcom submits that the judge was

wrong to hold that there was no material distinction between primary and secondary legislation, so that the court could not consider a counterfactual based on any legislation that might have been made. The court was, therefore, wrong to identify a distinction between administrative steps that could have been taken “but for” the unlawful 2015 Regulations on the one hand and a statutory instrument that could have been made, on the other hand. In the alternative, the passing of the hypothetical regulations was, according to Ofcom, itself just an administrative step. In any event, Ofcom was not enriched by the MNOs' payments because their objective value to Ofcom was what it could and would have obtained in any event, had it exercised its statutory power lawfully, as explained by the Supreme Court in Benedetti v. Sawiris [2014] AC 938 (“ Benedetti”). 4 And if that were wrong, the monies received by Ofcom could and should be subjectively devalued because Ofcom would only have obtained that benefit for itself at a lower price or not at all. 5 Moreover, the MNOs had not suffered a relevant loss, the enrichment was not at the MNOs' expense or unjust because Ofcom could and would have lawfully levied the charges, and the full value of the benefit the MNOs had received in terms of access to the spectrum had, in any event, to be netted off against the loss involved in paying the unlawful ALFs

The MNOs, on the other hand, submitted that the authorities on which Ofcom relied provided no warrant for a counterfactual approach. A claim based on the House of Lords' decision in Woolwich Equitable Building Society v. Inland Revenue Commissioners [1993] AC 70 (“ Woolwich”) was founded on the principle of legality 6 and the principle of parity. 7 The judge had been wrong to accept that a counterfactual analysis could be adopted. Charges levied without lawful warrant had to be repaid unless there was an existing power allowing Ofcom to make regulations retrospectively, which it was accepted in this case there was not. Even if, as a matter of domestic law, the full sum was not recoverable, charges levied in breach of EU law had to be repaid in full, unless there was a defence of passing on, which was not asserted in this case. 8


The case raises a fundamental question in the law of unjust enrichment as to the scope of a Woolwich claim. Mr Tom Weisselberg QC, leading counsel for Ofcom, submitted that, whilst the factor making the payee's enrichment unjust was rooted in public law, the right to restitution and the obligation to make restitution were part of the private law of obligations. 9 He submitted that that was important, because it was

common ground that restitution should be given, and the only question here was the extent of that restitution, which was a private law question. The usual private law approach in unjust enrichment was to apply a ‘but for’ causation test at the unjust factor stage. 10 Accordingly, there was nothing surprising in the conclusion that the court should look at what Ofcom could and would have done had they known the 2015 Regulations were unlawful

The court put to Mr Weisselberg in the course of his reply submissions that his argument depreciated the principle of legality enunciated in Woolwich. An authority with statutory power to make regulations could avoid repaying unlawfully levied charges by saying that it could and would have made lawful regulations. Moreover, there would cease to be much point in overcharged entities challenging the unlawfulness of such regulations, because the counterfactual would always prevent substantial recovery. Mr Weisselberg's answer to these points was to submit that his contentions were putting Woolwich into its proper place as part of the law of unjust enrichment. It was making sure that public authorities were not deprived of revenue on the basis of technicalities. He did not, however, shy away from the fact that his argument undermined the breadth of the Woolwich principle.


The central question for the court in this appeal is whether a proper understanding of the authorities requires, or at least points towards, the need for a counterfactual analysis in determining the extent of restitution in a Woolwich case.


Before addressing the authorities and this central question, I will briefly summarise the factual and statutory background, and summarise the judge's approach and the grounds of appeal.

Factual and statutory background


Like the judge, I can take the factual and statutory background mainly from the agreed statement of facts.


Ofcom is the body responsible for managing and licensing radio spectrum in the United Kingdom, including collecting ALFs. The MNOs operate networks of base stations through which they provide mobile communications services on a retail basis to subscribers and on a wholesale basis to Mobile Virtual Network Operators. Mobile devices transmit and receive voice calls and data via radio signals sent to and received by antennae on those base stations. Radio spectrum is therefore an essential input into the MNOs' businesses. Spectrum in the UK has generally been assigned after spectrum auctions since 2000. This case, however, concerns the 900 and 1800 MHz bands, which were allocated administratively rather than being assigned at auction. Four specific licences are in issue in this case, namely licence number 0249664 held by Vodafone, licence number 0249663 held by Telefónica, licence number 0931984 held by Three, and licence number 0249666 held by EE. In the case of each of these licences, an ALF was payable as provided in section 12 of the WTA 2006 and the regulations made thereunder.


Article 13 of Directive 2002/20/EC of 7 th March 2002 on the authorisation of electronic communications networks and services (the “Authorisation Directive”) 11 provided that Member States could allow “the relevant authority [Ofcom, in the case of the UK] to impose fees for the rights of use for radio frequencies”… “which reflect the need to ensure the optimal use of these resources”, and that “Member States shall ensure that such fees shall be objectively justified, transparent, non-discriminatory and...

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2 cases
  • Atos IT Services Ltd v Fylde Borough Council
    • United Kingdom
    • Queen's Bench Division
    • 18 March 2020
    ...has a right at common law to restitution based on the Woolwich principle, as recently summarised and applied in Vodafone Ltd v Ofcom [2020] EWCA Civ 183 (see the judgment of Sir Geoffrey Vos, Chancellor, paragraphs 100 Although this issue had not been considered before (and was accordingly......
  • Telefónica UK Ltd v The Office of Communications
    • United Kingdom
    • Court of Appeal (Civil Division)
    • 29 October 2020
    ...2011 (“the 2011 Regulations”). 2 EE Ltd. v Office of Communications [2018] 1 WLR 1868 3 [2019] EWHC 1234, upheld on appeal at [2020] EWCA Civ 183. 4 Review of Civil Litigation Costs: Final Report (December 2009), Chapter 41 para ...

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