Now that IP Australia has essentially moved to electronic lodgement, a recent case shows that you need to check your e-receipts carefully. The decision may also prove useful to understanding the Registrar’s obligation to give a party an opportunity to be heard.
Foxtel instructed their lawyers to file a notice of intention to oppose a trade mark filed by Unicom. Foxtel’s instructions were to file on the last day available to oppose. The notice was prepared and on the last day for filing a legal secretary submitted it through eServices. A transaction receipt was received by return.
Ten days later the in-house lawyer at Foxtel rang up the lawyers, alerting them to the fact that Unicom’s trade mark was now registered. Checking the Register revealed that no notice of intention to oppose had been received. The legal secretary:
then checked her files and the transaction receipt. As it turned out, the receipt was not for the lodgement of the notice of intention but concerned a different transaction altogether. Subsequent review of the electronic log provided by IP Australia indicates that although the process for filing the notice of intention had been commenced, the payment had not been received and lodgement had timed out before the filing was complete.
The lawyers then promptly wrote to the Registrar requesting that the registration of Unicom’s trade mark be revoked under s 84A and s 84B, providing an explanation and subsequently filed the proposed Statement of Grounds and Particulars of Opposition (if the registration were revoked).
The Registrar then wrote to Unicom’s attorneys indicating that, having regard to Foxtel’s intention to oppose and the explanation why that had not been effected, her she intended to revoke the registration, but giving Unicom an opportunity to be heard.
Unicom replied; arguing that something is not regarded as filed under the eServices system until and unless a filing receipt is issued. It also contended that the proposed revocation was outside the power conferred by s84A. After considering the submissions, the Registrar decided not to revoke the registration.
Burley J has dismissed Foxtel’s application.
Foxtel’s first argument was that it had been denied procedural fairness because it was not provided with an opportunity to respond to Unicom’s submissions before the Registrar changed her mind and decided not to revoke the registration.
The Registrar denied that it owed Foxtel any duty of procedural fairness. She was under no obligation to make a decision under s 84A and, in any event, the terms of s 84A required her to give an opportunity to be heard only to the registrant and people with interests recorded under Part XI.
At , Burley J held the Registrar did owe Foxtel a duty of procedural fairness, but the failure to provide it with Unicom’s submissions was not a material breach of that duty.
A duty to provide procedural fairness arises whenever the exercise of a statutory power affected a person’s rights, interests or legitimate expectations unless the duty has been excluded by plain words or necessary intendment.
The public interest in the purity of the Register – that the Register should not be clogged with invalid trade marks – meant Foxtel had a sufficient interest that required it be accorded procedural fairness. At , Burley J explained:
…. The “interest” of Foxtel is in persuading the Registrar that, in all the circumstances that existed when the trade mark was registered, the trade mark should not have been because, but for the error in filing the notice of intention to oppose there would have been an opposition on foot at the time of registration (s 84A(1)). In my view this is a form of possible adverse affectation that is sufficient to qualify as an interest to attract the protection of the rules of procedural fairness.
That s 84A did specify some people whom had to be given an opportunity to be heard did not lead an implication that Foxtel was not owed a duty. An intention to exclude natural justice was not to be inferred from the presence in the Act of rights which “are commensurate with some [only] of the rules of natural justice”. While not obliged to make a decision under s 84A, the Registrar was obliged to accord Foxtel natural justice having embarked on the exercise.
While Burley J accepted Foxtel’s argument that it was owed a duty of procedural fairness, his Honour did not accept it had been denied natural justice.
Foxtel argued that, as the Registrar indicated to Unicom she would revoke the registration if Unicom did not respond, Unicom’s submissions must have been material to the Registrar’s change of mind – deciding not to revoke. Therefore, Foxtel argued that the failure to disclose Unicom’s submissions before the Registrar decided not to revoke the registration denied it natural justice.
Burley J examined the reasons the Registrar gave for deciding not to revoke; these had been outlined only in short form in the letter advising her decision. From that letter, his Honour found that the Registrar had in fact rejected Unicom’s arguments on the construction of s 84A and accepted Foxtel’s construction. Therefore, Foxtel had not been denied natural justice on the point.
Burley J was not prepared to accept Foxtel’s argument that the short form letter did not set out the real reasons for the decision, especially in circumstances where Foxtel had not sought a statement of reasons from the Registrar under ADJR Act s 13.
Burley J next rejected Foxtel’s argument that the Registrar’s decision was an improper exercise of power because it was so unreasonable that no reasonable person could have exercised the power that way.
Here, Foxtel’s conscious decision to instruct that the notice of intention to oppose be filed on the last day of the opposition period – not an uncommon practice – loomed large.
Burley J accepted that the scheme of the Act reflected an intention that the Register be pure. His Honour noted, however, that the Act and reg.s also provided for deadlines for filing documents in oppositions and, in addition, provided a further opportunity for objectors to seek rectification through s 88. His Honour also pointed out that the Explanatory Memorandum linked s 84A(6) – which explicitly states the Registrar has no duty to consider whether to revoke a registration under s 84A – to the objectives of the section:
…. Revocation of registration under section 84A is not intended to provide a way of settling competing claims to ownership of a trade mark. This can be pursued through the courts, with section 86 of the Trade Marks Act providing for the Federal Court to cancel a registered trade mark. Nor is it intended to be a mechanism for parties to file de facto oppositions after a trade mark has been registered. This provision is only intended to provide an administrative mechanism to undo a registration where it was wrongly registered.
The Registrar’s letter stated that she had considered “all of the circumstances” and so taken into account all mandatory considerations. Further, as already noted, the procedure was not intended to provide a mechanism “for parties to file de facto oppositions after a trade mark has been registered” and Foxtel could still seek rectification under s 88. In these circumstances, Burley J held the Registrar’s decision was not so unreasonable that no reasonable person would have exercised the power that way.
Rather than take up the invitation to seek rectification under s 88, Foxtel has appealed (NSD795/2019).
Foxtel Management Pty Limited v Registrar of Trade Marks  FCA 605 (Burley J)