15 April 2024

UPC releases pleadings to the public, but questions remain

Commentary by Partner Nicholas Fox has been featured in  Law360 and World IP Review giving an insight into the implications of the Court of Appeal’s ruling that a member of the public can have access to the evidence and pleadings in the now settled Ocado v Autostore dispute.

Read more on the subject of the ruling by Partners Nicholas Fox and Alexander Robinson below.

The Court of Appeal of the Unified Patent Court (UPC) has now ruled that a member of the public can have access to the evidence and pleadings in the now settled Ocado v Autostore dispute. However, obiter comments in the Court’s decision mean there are still outstanding questions about the Court’s commitment to openness and transparency.

Background to the Decision

On 10 April 2024, the UPC Court of Appeal finally issued a decision permitting a member of the public sight of the evidence and pleadings which had been filed by Ocado in a case brought by Ocado against Autostore

The Ocado and Autostore dispute had been brought by Ocado in June 2023. However, shortly thereafter, the two parties settled the dispute and made a request to withdraw the action and the proceedings between the two parties were declared closed on 8 September 2023.

In the short time whilst the Ocado v Autostore dispute was pending, a member of the public filed a request to be given access to the statement of claim in the case. That request was filed on 15 August 2023 and then subsequently granted by the Court of First Instance in October. However, Ocado appealed the decision granting access and access to the court documents was withheld pending the appeal. The Court of Appeal have now rejected Ocado’s appeal and upheld the original order so that now access to the pleadings has finally been granted.

Concerns about speed and transparency

The decision of the Court is to be welcomed. However, the decision still leaves troubling questions about the Unified Patent Court’s commitment to transparency.

The UPC Court Rules state that written evidence and pleadings shall be available to the public upon “reasoned request”. However, the timeline of the proceedings outlined above demonstrates that it has taken 7 months and 26 days for the Court to process what should have been an administrative matter. This is concerning for a court which has been launched on the promise of speedy and transparent justice. The fact that a party has been able to block access to court documents for such a long period of time, even when a case has been settled, raises serious questions about the ability of third parties to access court documents in anything approaching real-time.

The reality of access to court documents in the Ocado v Autostore case is a far cry from that promised in early drafts of the UPC Court Rules which provided that written evidence and pleadings lodged at the Court would be available to the public for on-line consultation. Why the content of pleadings and evidence before the UPC should be shrouded in secrecy, whereas the content of oppositions before the European Patent Office are freely available, is entirely unclear.

Equally concerning are obiter comments in the Court’s decision which seem to suggest that despite the Court rules not containing any such limitation, Court documents should only be available after the conclusion of a case and that the public should not normally be permitted access to evidence and pleadings whilst a case is on-going unless there is a “direct legitimate interest” in the subject-matter of the proceedings.

The Court’s obiter comments in this respect would seem to be in conflict with the norms set out in the Council of Europe Convention on Access to Official Documents (Tromsø Convention) and the recommendations of the Council of Europe which require limitations on public access to be set down precisely in law. If it was intended that the public should only have access to written pleadings and evidence lodged with the court after a case has concluded, then this should have been made explicit in the wording of the relevant rules. The fact that no such limitation appears in the rules, suggests that there is no justification for any kind of blanket ban.

Rather, access should only be denied if parties to proceedings can establish that there are substantial reasons specific to the case which would mean that permitting third parties access would threaten the integrity of the proceedings.

However, it is difficult to envisage why publication of pleadings in patent infringement and revocation matters would prevent parties from bringing forward arguments and evidence in an impartial and independent manner, without external interference; or why such publication would cast doubt on the integrity of the Court’s deliberations and decisions. Such public access does not appear to threaten the integrity of the EPO’s opposition procedure. Nor does it threaten the integrity of court actions in for example the UK, Sweden or Finland, where Court rules permit third parties access to pleadings and evidence in pending matters.

Mathys & Squire test case

Mathys & Squire filed a test case to secure public access to evidence in the UPC at the end of November 2023. That case was stayed, pending the UPC Court of Appeal’s decision in Ocado v Autostore. Mathys & Squire now has three weeks from the date of the Appeal decision to submit comments on the decision to the judge handling our test case, who will then invite comments from the parties to the main proceeding where we are requesting access. The judge will then rule on the substance of our request and will hopefully confirm the right of third parties’ access to court documents in on-going proceedings.

Although the Ocado v Autostore decision has clarified a number of issues, as the main proceedings had settled long before the case came before the Court of Appeal, the Court was not in a position to settle how access should be decided in relation to on-going proceedings and it looks likely that many of those questions will now be the subject of decisions in our test case.