Court uses case management powers with care

United Kingdom

In Reckitt Benckiser UK plc v Home Pairfum Ltd (unreported), the High Court of England and Wales has declined to use its case management powers under the Civil Procedure Rules (CPR) to strike out a counterclaim that alleged that the plaintiff had made unjustified threats.

The case stemmed from Home Pairfum Ltd's sale of air fresheners, which Reckitt Benckiser plc - a manufacturer of various products, including air fresheners - claimed infringed nine of its UK trademarks, three Community trademarks, five registered designs and common law design rights. Reckitt also sued Home Pairfum and its managing director for passing off and breach of confidence. The defendants denied all allegations and filed an invalidation action against the trademarks at issue. They also sought declaratory injunctive and compensatory relief in respect of unjustified threats allegedly made by Reckitt.

Reckitt applied to have the defendants' threat counterclaim struck out. In response, the defendants applied to join Reckitt's solicitors as defendants to their threat counterclaim under Part 20 of the CPR. Reckitt argued that the threat counterclaim and the joinder were abuses of the court's process or were otherwise likely to obstruct the just disposal of the proceedings. It also argued that the court should exercise its case management powers under Part 3.1 of the CPR to strike out the threat claim and prohibit the joinder of Reckitt's solicitors.

Justice Laddie declined to strike out the defendants' threat counterclaim, finding that doing so should be the last option. He accepted that the damages recoverable by the defendants under the counterclaim would be negligible. However, he did not think it was inevitable, as Reckitt argued, that the defendants would obtain no injunctive relief or that any such relief would be valueless. Laddie felt that it was at least possible that a court would (i) conclude that the defendants had reasons to be apprehensive that threats might be made against their commercial contacts, and (ii) grant an injunction for that reason. Thus, Laddie did not agree with Reckitt's submission that it would be wasteful of the court's time.

As to whether there was an abuse of process, Laddie felt that there was nothing that demonstrated that raising a claim of threats against Reckitt was an abuse at all. It is not per se abusive for a party to seek relief merely because it is of low value. Nor was there anything in Reckitt's point to prompt the court to send a clear signal to others that the threats legislation should not be abused.

Laddie held that, on balance, it was likely that the main intention behind the attempt to join the solicitors to the counterclaim was not only to retaliate, which was unobjectionable, but also to make the solicitors and their relationship with Reckitt uncomfortable. The latter was an illegitimate purpose of the counterclaim for which he felt that it would be appropriate to exercise proportionate case management powers. Accordingly, he refused the defendants' application to join the solicitors to the threat counterclaim.

Kirsten Toft, Hammonds, London

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