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Threatening reform?

25 July 2011

In its eleventh programme of reform, the Law Commission has announced it will consider reforming the laws relating to groundless threats.

Currently, groundless threats of trade mark, design or patent litigation can be causes of action themselves.

Sabre rattling should obviously be discouraged, particularly as just the threat of infringement can be enough to make customers defect to rightsholders to avoid the threat of litigation.

But businesses harmed by allegations of infringement are often reluctant to bring a claim for groundless threats, particularly as they could be ordered to provide security for the rightsholder’s costs. When claims for groundless threats are brought, the costs can be disproportionate to the damage done by a threat. And in practice, the threats provisions can cause costs to increase, because rather than encouraging a litigant to set out its case clearly (which could result in an early settlement), litigants may seek to artificially narrow their claim to avoid threats actions.

So whilst the rationale behind the threats provisions is admirable, in practice they do not function effectively. Part of the solution may be amendment to the Civil Procedure Rules to allow declarations that threats are unjustified to be brought cheaply and quickly.

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