Solvay, Case C-616/10, offers a great opportunity for the European Court of Justice to revisit a number of old chestnuts in the application of the Brussels I Regulation (the Jurisdiction Regulation or ‘JR’): the exclusive ground of jurisdiction with respect to intellectual property rights, of Article 22(4); multipartite litigation in Article 6 JR; and finally provisional measures, referred to in Article 31. Cruz Villalon AG’s Opinion was issued on 29 March.
Solvay SA, a company established in Belgium and holding a European patent, valid in more than one Member State [don’t ask – European patent law is less harmonised than one might hope and even a ‘European’ patent does not necessarily and automatically cover all Member States], brought an action in the Rechtbank ’s-Gravenhage in the Netherlands for infringement of several national parts of the patent, in particular against three companies originating from two different Member States, Honeywell Fluorine Products Europe BV, established in the Netherlands, and Honeywell Belgium NV and Honeywell Europe NV, established in Belgium, for marketing a product manufactured by Honeywell International Inc. that was identical to the product under the above patent. In the course of the proceedings, Solvay lodged an interim claim against the defendants in the main proceedings, seeking provisional relief in the form of a cross-border prohibition against infringement for the duration of the main proceedings.
Firstly, with respect to the multipartite jurisduction element: Article 6(1) allows the applicant to sue several defendants before the court where any one of them is domiciled, provided the claims are’ so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings’. Per Roche Nederland, the Court had controversially held that parallel actions for infringement in different Member States, which, in accordance with Article 64(3) of the Munich Convention, must be examined in the light of the national law in force, are not in the context of the same legal situation and hence any divergences between decisions cannot be treated as contradictory – leaving no room for application of Article 6(1) to the benefit of holders of European patents vis-a-vis actions for infringement in different Member States. Cruz Villalon AG proposes to distinguish, not to overturn, Roche Nederland on the ground that in the case at issue, the objectionable behaviour concerned more than one undertaking, domiciled in more than one Member State, however accused of the same behaviour in the same Member State. If Article 6(1) were not to be applicable, the courts concerned would hence hold on the basis of the same lex loci protectionis (that of the Member State in which the alleged conduct is said to have taken place) and hence the risk of irreconcilable judgments great.
The AG then turns to the application of Article 22(4), dealt with previously in particular in GAT. Here (as helpfully summarised by the AG) , the referring court asks, in essence, whether the fact that a defence of invalidity of a patent has been raised in interim proceedings for a cross-border prohibition against infringement, in parallel to main proceedings for infringement, is sufficient, and, if so, under what formal or procedural conditions, for Article 22(4) to become applicable. Applicability of Article 22(4)’s exclusive ground for jurisdiction is highly relevant: firstly, the court dealing with the case has to decline jurisdiction for the main proceedings on the basis of Article 25 (when an exclusive ground of jurisdiction is at stake, all other courts have to declare themselves without jurisdiction) and, secondly, as a consequence, it is then required to consider its competence to adjudicate on the interim proceedings on the basis of Article 31’s jurisdictional ground for provisional measures. After careful consideration in which the AG gives a brief ‘tour d’horizon’ of the various procedural realities that might exists, he advises that Article 22(4) is not applicable when the validity of a patent is raised only in interim proceedings, ! in so far as the decision likely to be adopted at the end of those proceedings does not have any final effect. Whether the latter is the case depends on the applicable law (see my comment above, re incomplete harmonisation of EU patent law).
I wonder whether the Court would be put off by the AG’s sidestep into what he calls ‘procedural reality’ (not a criterion which the Court generally is happy to entertain in the application of the JR) and whether, similarly, the criterion ‘final effect in accordance with the applicable law’ would offer enough legal certainty (which the CoJ definitely craves in the application of the JR).
One final consideration in the AG’s opinion is the application of Article 31’s jurisdictional ground for provisional measures (this question will only feature in the eventual judgment, should the Court reject the AG’s view on Article 22(4)). Article 31’s scope is limited. Amongst others, the measures within its scope must be of a ‘provisional’ nature, that is to say, per Reichert, be intended to preserve a factual or legal situation so as to safeguard rights the recognition of which is sought elsewhere from the court having jurisdiction as to the substance of the matter: that is a ratione temporis limitation. In Van Uden, the court added a limitation ratione loci: there has to be a ‘real connecting link’ between the subject-matter of the provisional measures sought and the territorial jurisdiction of the Member State of the court seized. The AG suggests that applied to intellectual property rights (but with wider ramification), this condition does not imply that the measure must not have any ‘extraterritorial’ effect: rather, that for Article 31 to apply, there has to be a minimum territorial localisation of the provisional measure sought. The existence of such real connecting link should be considered chiefly in the light of the enforcement procedures of the Member State of the court seized.
Not all of the considerations of the AG are likely to be entertained by the Court. Neither do they cover all aspects of the troublesome application of Article 22(4) [not much of which has made it into the review of the JR].