I'm a little delinquent in reporting on this judgment, which came out on July 28 and was the subject of a post on IPKat on August 9, but so it goes. The case is United Video Properties, Inc v Telenet NV, C-57/15, which as I reported back in April (here) involves the questions of whether Belgian law, which caps the recovery of attorneys' fees awarded to the successful party in litigation at a maximum of €30,000, and awards expenses for technical advisers only when the other party is at fault, is consistent with article 14 of the 2004 Enforcement Directive, which states that "Member States shall ensure that reasonable and proportionate legal costs and other expenses incurred by the successful party shall, as a general rule, be borne by the unsuccessful party, unless equity does not allow this." In the underlying litigation, the court awarded the prevailing defendant in a patent case just €11,000 in legal fees for the proceedings at each instance (so I guess €22,000 in total) and denied its request to be compensated for having retained a technical adviser, despite the fact that the defendant asserted actual legal fees of €185,462.55 and a technical adviser fee of €44,400.
More specifically, the questions referred were:
(1) Do the terms “reasonable and proportionate legal costs and other expenses” in Article 14 of Directive 2004/48 preclude the Belgian legislation which offers courts the possibility of taking into account certain well-defined features specific to the case and which provides for a system of varying flat rates in respect of costs for the assistance of a lawyer?
(2) Do the terms “reasonable and proportionate legal costs” and “other expenses” in Article 14 of Directive 2004/48 preclude the case-law which states that the costs of a technical adviser are recoverable only in the event of fault (contractual or extra-contractual)?
Regarding the first question, the CJEU concludes:
25. . . . [L]egislation providing for a flat-rate of reimbursement of a lawyer’s fees could, in principle, be justified, provided that it is intended to ensure the reasonableness of the costs to be reimbursed, taking into account factors such as the subject matter of the proceedings, the sum involved, or the work to be carried out to represent the client concerned. This may be the case, in particular, if that legislation is intended to exclude the reimbursement of excessive costs due to unusually high fees agreed between the successful party and its lawyer or due to the provision, by the lawyer, of services that are not considered necessary in order to ensure the enforcement of the intellectual property rights concerned.
26 On the other hand, the requirement that the unsuccessful party must bear ‘reasonable’ legal costs cannot justify, for the purposes of the implementation of Article 14 of Directive 2004/48 in a Member State, legislation imposing a flat-rate significantly below the average rate actually charged for the services of a lawyer in that Member State. . . .
28 As regards . . . the requirement that account be taken the specific features of the present case, it is apparent from the very wording of the first question that the national legislation at issue in the main proceedings offers the courts, in principle, the possibility of taking account of those features.
29 However, . . . it must be stated that Article 14 of Directive 2004/48 provides that the legal costs to be supported by the unsuccessful party must be ‘proportionate’. The question of whether those costs are proportionate cannot be assessed independently of the costs that the successful party actually incurred in respect of the assistance of a lawyer, provided they are reasonable within the meaning of paragraph 25 above. If the requirement of proportionality does not imply that the unsuccessful party must necessarily reimburse the entirety of the costs incurred by the other party, it does however mean that the successful party should have the right to reimbursement of, at the very least, a significant and appropriate part of the reasonable costs actually incurred by that party.
30 Therefore, national legislation that lays down an absolute limit in respect of costs attached to the assistance of a lawyer, such as that at issue in the main proceedings, must ensure, on the one hand, that that limit reflects the reality of the rates charged for the services of a lawyer in the field of intellectual property, and, on the other, that, at the very least, a significant and appropriate part of the reasonable costs actually incurred by the successful party are borne by the unsuccessful party. It is not possible for such legislation, particularly in a situation in which that limit is too low, to prevent the amount of those costs vastly exceeding the limited provided for, so that the reimbursement which the successful party may claim becomes disproportionate or even, where applicable, insignificant, thus depriving Article 14 of Directive 2004/48 of its practical effect.
31 The conclusion in the preceding paragraph cannot be called into question by the fact that Article 14 of Directive 2004/48 excludes from its scope situations in which equity does not allow the legal costs to be borne by the unsuccessful party. That exclusion covers national rules allowing courts, in a specific case in which the application of the general scheme regarding legal costs would lead to a result considered unfair, to disregard that scheme by way of exception. On the other hand, equity, by its very nature, cannot justify a general unconditional exclusion of reimbursement of costs exceeding a specified ceiling. . . .
32 In the light of all the foregoing, the answer to the first question is that Article 14 of Directive 2004/48 must be interpreted as not precluding national legislation, such as that at issue in the main proceedings, which provides that the unsuccessful party is to be ordered to pay the legal costs incurred by the successful party, offers the courts responsible for making that order the possibility of taking into account features specific to the case before it, and provides for a flat-rate scheme for the reimbursement of costs for the assistance of a lawyer, subject to the condition that those rates ensure that the costs to be borne by the unsuccessful party are reasonable, which it is for the referring court to determine. However, Article 14 of that directive precludes national legislation providing flat-rates which, owing to the maximum amounts that it contains being too low, do not ensure that, at the very least, that a significant and appropriate part of the reasonable costs incurred by the successful party are borne by the unsuccessful party.
Regarding the second:
39. . . . [T]he costs of research and identification incurred in the context of actions covering, inter alia, a general observation of the market, carried out by a technical adviser, and the detection by the latter of possible infringements of intellectual property law, attributable to unknown infringers at that stage, do not appear to show such a close direct link. On the other hand, to the extent that the services, regardless of their nature, of a technical adviser are essential in order for a legal action to be usefully brought seeking, in a specific case, to have such a right upheld, the costs linked to the assistance of that adviser fall within ‘other expenses’ that must, pursuant to Article 14 of Directive 2004/48, be borne by the unsuccessful party.
40 In those circumstances, the answer to the second question is that Article 14 of Directive 2004/48 must be interpreted as precluding national rules providing that reimbursement of the costs of a technical adviser are provided for only in the event of fault on the part of the unsuccessful party, given that those costs are directly and closely linked to a judicial action seeking to have such an intellectual property right upheld.
So, in short, flat-rates are okay as long as they compensate "a significant and appropriate part of the reasonable costs" actually incurred, and technical adviser fees are compensable if they are "directly and closely linked to" the judicial proceeding at issue.