Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Late references to prior art: how to reach a sensible solution

VPG Systems UK Ltd v Air-Weigh Europe Ltd was an extempore ruling of Judge Hacon yesterday, sitting in the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC), England and Wales. It will never hit the law reports, but at least it was noted on the Lawtel subscription-only service. It's one of those small but revealing cases that shows how a low-tier court goes about its unglamorous daily business of resolving disputes as efficiently and economically as possible, given the obstacles facing the judge (otherwise known as the parties).

In short, this was all about a pre-trial case management conference in a standard infringement claim where the defendant alleged invalidity. The lists of issues had been determined at a case management conference, following which the defendant sought to include reference to a new item of prior art. Although that item of prior art had not been referred to in the original list of issues, it was not one that surprised anyone since it had been mentioned both in the pleadings and in evidence.

The defendant submitted that its expert had not realised, before the case management conference, that certain documents relating to the new item of prior art were available. It also argued that, since the relevant item of prior art had been referred to in the pleadings and in the evidence, in that sense it was already part of the material before the court.

Judge Hacon granted the defendant's application.

First, the bad news for the applicant: the primary difficulty for the defendant was one of the provisions of the Civil Procedure Rules, CPR r.63.23(2), which deliberately made it difficult for parties to add material into the case after the first case management conference. What's more, the fact that the expert had not realised that documents relating to the relevant piece of art were available before the first case management conference did not constitute an exceptional reason that could justify the proposed amendment.

What about the good news? Given that the prior art had been referred to in the pleadings and in evidence, it could not be said that the defendant was seeking to submit new material into the case; rather, it was seeking to rely on the new material as a specific item of prior art.  This being so, r.63.23(2) did not of itself provide a barrier to allowing the amendment -- and there wasn't any other barrier to allowing the specific item of prior art to be added into the list of issues. Plainly it was an item of prior item with which the patentee was familiar, it having been referred to in the pleadings and in the evidence, and therefore it had to be something that was well within the patentee's contemplation, and there was no real prejudice to the patentee in allowing the defendant to rely on it.

Now for the qualification: since its application would be allowed, the defendant would not be permitted to put in any material relating to the item of prior art that was not already before the court in the form of disclosure or evidence.

This seems to be a neat solution, protecting the interests of both parties and enabling the court to have a better stab at either invalidating or affirming the status of a patent that might well be of interest to others in the same market.

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