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Disputes round-up: witness statements in spotlight and UK finally moves on Unified Patent Court

Disputes reform is picking up pace as a working party to tackle ‘much-needed’ reforms around witness statements is endorsed by the Commercial Court Users’ Group (CCUG) and the UK finally ratifies an international agreement to set up a pan-European Unified Patent Court (UPC).

In March, the CCUG endorsed the creation of a working party after concluding it was ‘unfair on good witnesses that all they can do is put in their statement, and then face cross examination; there is no opportunity for them to tell their story live.’

The working party coincides with Julian Acratopulo, Clifford Chance partner and newly-appointed president of the London Solicitors Litigation Association, recently calling for changes.

He told Legal Business: ‘If the reform is appropriate and it will improve things, then it should be embraced, whether that’s for witness statements or disclosure.’

The creation of a working group mirrors the strategy for recent disclosure reforms, where a group of private practitioners, barristers, in-house lawyers and members of the judiciary came together to form the Disclosure Working Group (DWG).

Ed Crosse, Simmons & Simmons partner and member of the DWG, told Legal Business: ‘For some time there has been criticism by the courts and practitioners about the length of witness statements and the fact that very often they do not reflect the witness’ own words. Clearly this is an area that merits review.

‘We do not want to pay the consequences of not going ahead with reforms that are much-needed because rival courts around the world will make their procedures as attractive as possible and we could lose ground to them if we fail to react quickly to feedback.’

Meanwhile, the UK finally ratified the UPC agreement (UPCA) on 26 April. In late 2016 the UK government signalled it was moving ahead with preparations to ratify the UPCA, but the snap election of June 2017 and resulting minority government had put this in doubt.

The UPC is designed to provide cross-border judgements on patent disputes across its contracting states, seen as an easier alternative to the current regime which requires IP rights to be asserted before the court system of each individual state.

Former Nokia head of IP litigation and current Bird & Bird partner, Richard Vary, commented: ‘Ratifying the UPCA will be advantageous for UK industry as we tend to have more patent holders. Therefore we want a strong patent system, and the UPC means you can get an injunction covering the whole of the EU at a much-reduced filing cost.’

Elsewhere, Hausfeld has won a class action settlement on behalf of Southern African gold miners in the first case utilising South Africa’s collective action regime.

A unanimous three-judge panel at the Johannesburg High Court authorised the case in May 2016 as an opt-out class action against the majority of the nation’s gold mining industry.

Hausfeld subsequently won compensation in the region of 10,000 to 500,000 South African rand for each eligible gold miners who had suffered from silicosis or tuberculosis as a result of their work.

Hausfeld partner Richard Lewis said: ‘This ground-breaking settlement brings much-needed relief to thousands of workers whose legal rights were ignored and forgotten. It brings an important measure of justice to a system where it has been absent for decades.’