08 August 2018

Australian Federal Court Upholds Privilege in Communications Involving Patentee’s Foreign Patent Attorneys

Global NetworkLegal professional privilege (also called ‘client legal privilege’ in Australia, to reflect the fact that the privilege is actually held by the client) is a rule of law which protects communications between legal professionals and their clients, along with related records and documents, from compulsory disclosure by order of a court, or under a provision of statutory law.  The rationale for protecting such communications has been explained in various ways, including to encourage full disclosure of information by a client to a lawyer, and to enable the lawyer to give full and considered advice without fear of subsequent adverse consequences to the client.  The privilege that exists between a client and a lawyer is established under the common law, by the Commonwealth Evidence Act 1995, and by similar provisions of state legislation in some states.

In Australia, patent attorneys are generally not also lawyers, however section 200 of the Patents Act 1990 provides that communications, records or documents made for the dominant purpose of a registered patent attorney providing intellectual property advice enjoys the same privilege as if it were made by a legal practitioner providing legal advice. These provisions were strengthened as of 15 April 2013, on commencement of the Intellectual Property Laws Amendment (Raising the Bar) Act 2012, which also extended the privilege to individuals authorised to do patents work under the laws of other countries or regions, i.e. to foreign patent attorneys and patent agents.  Prior to this change, advice provided by foreign practitioners was not protected by patent attorney privilege (Eli Lilly & Company v Pfizer Ireland Pharmaceuticals (No 2) [2004] FCA 850: ‘The language of s 200(2) is clear. The privilege is confined to communications with patent attorneys registered as such in Australia.’)

In a recent decision, a judge of the Federal Court of Australia has upheld the claims of a patentee, Neurim Pharmaceuticals (1991) Ltd, for legal professional privilege and patent attorney privilege in relation to documents prepared by Israeli, US, and UK/European patent attorneys in respect of US and European patent applications corresponding to an Australian patent that is now the subject of litigation: Neurim Pharmaceuticals (1991) Ltd v Generic Partners Pty Ltd [2018] FCA 1082.

Interestingly, a number of the documents were originally produced and communicated in 2008 and 2011, i.e. prior to the commencement of the Raising the Bar reforms that extended privilege to the work of foreign practitioners.  It seems that it was common ground between the parties that the amendments to section 200 have retrospective effect, in the sense that they apply to communications, records, and documents made prior to their commencement.  A similar concession was made in a earlier case relating to privilege in communications that took place in 2004, but were assumed to be subject to the post-Raising the Bar provisions, although in that case it was less clear that the changes in the law would have materially altered the outcome.

Accordingly, the court was not asked to consider whether patent attorney privilege actually applied to the foreign-practitioner documents.  Rather, the dispute between the parties was as to whether the privilege had been waived by the patentee as result of its decision to make amendments to its Australian patent, upon commencing litigation in 2017, that were similar to earlier amendments made to its corresponding US and European patent applications.  The court found that, in the circumstances, privilege was not waived, and Neurim was therefore not required to produce the documents.

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