A patents case goes to the High Court

The High Court has granted special leave to Alphapharm to appeal from the Full Federal Court’s decision to allow Lundbeck to apply to extend the term of its Lexapro patent 10 years late. The High Court was not interested at all in the exercise of the discretion to allow a 10 year extension. the question is whether a power to extend time exists at all.

The extension of term provisions for pharmaceutical patents are found in s 70 and s 71(2). Section 71(2) provides that:

An application for an extension of the term of a standard patent must be made during the term of the patent and within 6 months after the latest of the following dates:

(a) the date the patent was granted;

( b) the date of commencement of the first inclusion in the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods of goods that contain, or consist of, any of the pharmaceutical substances referred to in subsection 70(3);

(c) the date of commencement of this section.

It was common ground that Lundbeck’s application was outside the latest of the possible dates.

However, the Patents Act also provides a power to grant extensions of time in s 223.

Lundbeck’s problem – if it turns out to be a problem – is that s 223(11) says that s 223 cannot be used to extend the time for doing “prescribed actions” and reg. 22.11 specifies as one of the prescribed actions:

filing, during the term of a standard patent under subsection 71(2) of the Act, an application under subsection 70(1) of the Act for an extension of the term of the patent;

In the Federal Court,[1] Yates J at [50] found that Lundbeck’s “application” for an extension of time fell outside this because it really involved 2 requirements:

The making of an application under s 70(1) of the Act is governed by two time limits: the application must be made “during the term of the patent” and within six months of the applicable date in s 71(2)(a) to (c). Both time limits must be observed in order to make an application.

While the requirement that the application be made “during the term of the patent” was caught and so excluded by s 223(11), the second requirement – within 6 months of the applicable date – was not.

The High Court (Kiefel J and Keane J) have granted Alphapharm special leave to argue that, as a matter of construction, there was really only one application.

Lundbeck boldly tried to argue that special leave should not be granted because the issue raised no question of general importance: there not that many applications for an extension of time to apply for an extension of the term of a pharmaceutical patent. Kiefel J retorted sharply:

KIEFEL J: But the extension of a patent is itself an important matter, is it not?

MR NIALL: It is.

KIEFEL J: Very important.

It does raise an interesting question. The extended term expired back in December 2012. Alphapharm and others, however, had entered the market when the original term of the patent expired on 13 June 2009 and before Lundbeck’s application for an extension of time in which to file its application to extend the term had been finalised. Therefore, it would appear that the potential exposure of the generics companies to damages awards (or an account of profits) is up for grabs; i.e., another 3 years.

Alphapharm Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S [2014] HCATrans 79

Lid dip: Opinions on High

Some other commentaries: here, here and here.

  1. Aspen Pharma Pty Ltd v H Lundbeck A/S [2013] FCAFC 129 (Jessup and Jagot JJ agreeing).  ?

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A barrister practising mainly in Australian patents, trade marks, copyright and other IP law; lecturer and contributing author to LexisNexis' Copyright & Designs and Patents looseleaf services