EWHC 792 (Pat) Ablynx and VUB v Unilver engages similar discussions as Eli Lily v enentech and Chugai v UCB with the additional element of now, under Brussels Ia, the application of Artile 31(2). This Article makes safe the torpedo previously used to gazump choice of court, by giving the courts of the States in whose favour choice of court has been concluded, a first go at discussing the validity and application of the choice of court agreement.
Here: does Article 31(2) mean that the Brussels courts, to whom jurisdiction has been assigned in a licence agreement, get to decide first on the engagement of Article 24(4)’s exclusive jurisdictional rule re the validity of patents?
It is worth quoting Hacon J in full: at 17 ff
’17. Ms Lane (for the defendants, GAVC) submitted that the position is clear: art.31(2) is engaged and therefore these proceedings must be stayed. Art.24 could never make a difference in this court because it cannot override art.31(2). That is because art.31(2) is expressly stated to be without prejudice to art.26 but not art.24. The consequence is that all issues arising in these proceedings must be ceded to the Brussels courts, including the question whether art.24(4) is engaged and if so, what should be done about it. It is not the concern of this court.
18. I disagree. To my mind art.25(4) explains why there is no mention of art.24 in art.31(2). Art.31(2) is necessarily without prejudice to art.24 since an agreement relied on for a stay under art.31(2) can carry no legal force if it purports to exclude the courts having exclusive jurisdiction under art.24. Even on the assumptions I have stated, art.31(2) cannot apply if art.24(4) is engaged. Art.24(4)’s engagement depends on whether these proceedings are ‘concerned with’ the validity of the Patents UK within the meaning of art.24(4). I must resolve this last question before I can decide whether the (assumed) agreement carries legal force and therefore whether art.31(2) is engaged.
19. I also note that art.26 is itself made subject to art.24. This reinforces my view that the recasting of Brussels I has not altered the hierarchy of provisions awarding jurisdiction, with art.24 at the top. Arts.24 and 25 both speak of ‘exclusive jurisdiction’, but that conferred by art.24 is the more exclusive.’
Having held that Article 31(2) is not engaged, the Court still has to assess whether the claim is essentially a declaration of non-infringement or rather ‘concerns’ the validity of the patents. Defendants argue that the validity of the Patents UK would form only an incidental part of this action, since it is really a dispute about the scope of defendant’s licence.
Here, Hacon J discussed CJEU authority at length (GAT v LUK, BVG, Gasser etc.) and summarises at 53
(1) When a stay is sought under art.31(2), if an argument is raised that the court before which the stay is sought has exclusive jurisdiction under art.24, that court must decide whether the argument is correct.
(2) If the court has exclusive jurisdiction under art.24, art.31(2) is not engaged. There will be no stay.
(3) If the court does not have exclusive jurisdiction under art.24, it must decide whether at least prima facie there is an agreement which satisfies art.25 and which confers exclusive jurisdiction on courts of another Member State. If so, provided the defendant has not entered an appearance in a manner which satisfies art.26, there must be a stay of the proceedings.
EPLaw helpfully summarise the lenghty review of testimony and pleadings as follows: taking into account the usual practice in relation to patent validity proceedings in the UK, and the arguments which are typically run, the Court concluded that there was no real doubt that if the proceedings progress to trial they will be concerned with the validity of the Patents within the meaning of art.24(4). Art.24(4) was therefore engaged.
The case raises again the interesting issue of the degree to which the court may rely on parties’ submissions in particulars of claim when examining jurisdiction, or alternatively need to look beyond these stated arguments into what might and will be argued.
Leave to Appeal has been granted and a further order has already dealt with service issues.
(Handbook of ) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 22.214.171.124, Heading 126.96.36.199.