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UK: Patents Court is running swifter than ever

Tristan Sherliker of Bird & Bird explains how growing efficiency means that patent cases are taking less time to get to trial in the UK

It is often said that there is a rivalry between the different patent courts of Europe. When it comes to enforcement, they each have different processes and personalities. As well as Germany’s quick, split system popular with patentees, the centralised Dutch system is well respected and popular. On the other hand, perhaps unfairly, the Italian courts gained a reputation in the 2000s as a ‘torpedo’ jurisdiction.

In this strange competition, the UK has always placed highly. They have specialist courts with specialist judges, an emphasis on technical investigation, and a disclosure system that leaves nowhere to hide. All this effort can be expensive – but that is a manageable risk and a calculated one – offset by the fact that the winner recovers their costs (or most of them).

Recently though, slowing pace has been the downside to the UK’s system. In the last few years, demand for the court’s time, has at times, exceeded the court’s capacity. However, excitingly, there are signs that this is changing. Over the last year, the court’s diary has moved more quickly, cases are taking less time to get to trial, and the machine has become well-oiled.

Growing efficiency

Clearly this is good news for the UK as a centre of IP excellence. But why the sudden uptick in activity? There are two main reasons: one is banal, but the other more interesting.

That first reason, a purely practical one, is simply that the supply of judges’ time has risen to meet that demand. Two new patent court judges have been appointed to meet demand, and the court is also making use of specialist deputy judges to handle cases quickly. This welcome additional bandwidth was sorely needed after a lack of judges that was created for various reasons in 2019 and 2020.

The second aspect is far more interesting: the court process is getting smarter. There has been a spate of innovations and efficiencies in the court’s procedures which, taken all together, have really oiled the gears. An example of efficiency comes from lessons learned during the pandemic: after being dragged forcibly into the information age by repeated lockdowns, the court became accustomed to holding whole trials by video link, with electronic papers and witnesses deposed via Teams or Zoom. Now, this has become the norm for shorter hearings, which by default will all be done remotely, reducing the overhead along the road to trial.

Delivery of timely verdicts

The court has also made clear statements that it intends to do justice swiftly. In the Patents Court, there have been clear judicial statements that the court intends to bring patent cases to trial in 12 months or less where possible, and this is being done even in cases of high complexity. Beyond that, the Shorter Trials Scheme procedure – which allows less complex cases to jump the queue – has been used more and more in the context of IP – there have even been full patent cases in the Shorter Trials Scheme.

So, it seems that the English Patents Court is setting out its stall for more business. With the Unified Patent Court (UPC) on the horizon, it will clearly be important for the specialist court to retain and build on its reputation. There is even more reason for optimism here too, as Lord Justice Birss, a pre-eminent IP judge, has recently been appointed as Deputy Head of Civil Justice. He has made it clear that he will be spearheading further moves towards swift, modern dispute resolution in the coming years.

Tristan Sherliker
Senior associate, Bird & Bird

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