Posts Tagged Ablynx and VUB v Unilever

Ablynx and VUB v Unilever. The Court of Appeal reverses on Brussels Ia’s protection for choice of court (Article 31(2), yet dithers as to precise implications.

The Court of Appeal in [2019] EWCA Civ 2192 has reversed Hacon J’s ruling which I reviewed here in [2019] EWHC 792 (Pat) Ablynx and VUB v Unilever. Hacon J had held that Article 31(2) does NOT 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. Hacon J had decided that A31(2) cannot apply if A24(4) is engaged.

Lewison LJ with great clarity discussed CJEU and other authority on the application of (now) A25 and A24(4) (GAT v Luk and Roche of course feature). He holds at 71 that under the terms of the Recast Regulation, the Belgian court is empowered to decide whether the English court has exclusive jurisdiction; and that that question will involve the question whether the choice of court agreement is overridden by A25(4). And at 75: ‘the mere fact that there is a whisper of invalidity does not automatically bring proceedings in a different member state to a juddering halt. If this approach were to be applied to article 31(2) it would enable the Belgian court to decide, on a provisional basis, whether there was a non-negligible possibility that the UK court would declare the UK designation of the patents invalid. If it came to that conclusion, it would then have to decide to what extent that invalidated the exclusive jurisdiction agreement.’  ‘The court first seised (in England) is required to stay its proceedings as soon as the designated court has been seised (in Belgium) and until such time as the latter court declares that it has no jurisdiction under the exclusive choice of court agreement.’ Lewison LJ does hold that the court seized has to carry out a prima facie review of the validity of the choice of court agreement.

Conclusion, at 77: ‘it is for the court designated in the exclusive jurisdiction agreement (i.e. the Belgian court) to decide whether (and, if so, to what extent) it is deprived of its jurisdiction as a result of article 25 (4).’

However subsequently and despite counsel claim at 78 that the English court should not even consider the question whether A25(4) was engaged, the Court of Appeal does hold that the English courts should carry out a prima facie review of A25(4), too: at 78: if a prima facie case is established that A24 (4) does not apply (which at 110 following lengthy discussion it holds it does not, prima facie, in the case at issue; hence the action is stayed in its entirety) then it will be for the Belgian court to decide that question definitively. The opposite, it suggests, would cause unnecessary delay and expense.

This is a very thin line between full respect for Article 25(4)’s anti-torpedo mechanism, and disciplining abuse. I am not sure this judgment settles the issue on A25(4)’s full implications for court’s respective powers.

Geert.

(Handbook of ) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.7, Heading 2.2.9.5.

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Ablynx and VUB v Unilever. On Brussels Ia’s protection for choice of court (Article 31(2) and, again, on DNIs and exclusive jurisdiction for patents.

[2019] 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.

Geert.

(Handbook of ) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.7, Heading 2.2.9.5.

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