2.6.5 Discovery and gathering of information
This section focuses on discovery processes in the Federal Court of Australia, given that patent matters are primarily conducted in that jurisdiction. Discovery is one type of court-mandated process that requires one party to litigation to disclose documents (or the existence of documents) to another.69 Three other court-mandated document disclosure processes are: notices to produce and subpoenas, which are addressed briefly in Section 18.104.22.168, and preliminary discovery, which is addressed in 22.214.171.124.
Discovery in the Federal Court is governed by Part 20 of the Federal Court Rules 2011 (Cth) as elucidated in the Federal Court’s Central Practice Note: National Court Framework and Case Management (CPN-1) Part 10, the Intellectual Property Practice Note (IP-1) paragraphs 6.14–6.16 and 9.1, and the Technology and the Court Practice Note (GPN-TECH) Part 3, which all also relate to the court’s processes regarding discovery.
126.96.36.199 Circumstances in which discovery will be ordered
Discovery may only occur by order of the court.70 An order for discovery will only be made if it would “facilitate the just resolution of the proceeding as quickly, inexpensively and efficiently as possible.”71 That is, there is no right to discovery, and the court is not bound by any agreement between the parties regarding discovery. A court may refuse to order discovery, amend its scope or defer consideration of it until a later point in the proceeding. If a party seeks discovery in advance of all parties filing and serving their affidavit evidence, it is likely that the party will need to justify to the court why discovery should be ordered at that stage of the proceeding. The court may consider that the goals in Rule 20.11 of the Federal Court Rules 2011 (Cth) are more likely to be achieved if discovery is ordered after all parties have filed and served their affidavit evidence. By adopting such a course, the burden of discovery may be minimized on the basis that any specific gaps in the evidence that need to be filled by way of discovery are more likely to be known.72
“Standard discovery” refers to a party being ordered to produce all documents that are directly relevant to the issues raised on the pleadings that can be located after a reasonable search. The burden of such discovery can be significant. Central Practice Note paragraph 10.7 states that discovery should be proportionate to the nature, size and complexity of the case. However, the usual course in patent matters is for parties to negotiate “categories” of discovery, in which documents answering certain specific descriptions are sought. This is known as “nonstandard discovery” and is dealt with in Rule 20.15. For example, a category might seek documents recording or evidencing the steps undertaken in a particular manufacturing process where that would be relevant to proving infringement of a method or process claim.
There is no formal process for negotiating discovery categories. Usually, at a suitable stage of the litigation, parties will exchange correspondence outlining the categories they seek and then negotiate to reach agreement, for example, on the wording of those categories and the timing of document production. If agreement cannot be reached on some issues, the matter is usually brought before the docket judge by way of an interlocutory application, supported by an affidavit or a list of correspondence or undisputed documents under Rule 17.02. A judge will expect parties to have attempted to resolve differences regarding the categories as far as possible before ruling on the categories to be ordered. The judge will also expect the parties to have determined a suitable timetable for production – that is, to have considered how long the discovery process is likely to take given the scope of searches, investigations and reviews of the documents that need to be undertaken.
A party may oppose categories of discovery sought by another party on various bases. Grounds often include that (a) the documents sought are not directly relevant to an issue in the proceedings, (b) the documents are not necessary for a party to prove its case or impugn the case of its opponent, (c) the request is “fishing” (e.g., a speculative attempt to locate documents that would allow the requesting party to plead a new case), (d) the category is unnecessarily broad or is oppressive in that it would be unreasonably burdensome for the receiving party to comply with the category, and (e) the category would only produce documents that would be privileged, and there is no reasonable submission that such privilege has been waived. These matters are usually resolved at a hearing by reference to the pleadings; however, in contending that a category is oppressive, parties tend to file affidavit evidence from a solicitor outlining the scope of searches, investigations and reviews of documents required to satisfy the category. Notwithstanding such evidence, the court may order discovery in the category on the basis that the party need only conduct a reasonable search for documents as set out in Rule 20.14(3).
188.8.131.52 Process of giving discovery
Unless otherwise ordered, a party must undertake a reasonable search for documents falling within the scope of any discovery categories ordered that are in its possession, power or control. Rule 20.14(3) of the Federal Court Rules 2011 (Cth) outlines matters to consider when determining what constitutes a “reasonable” search in the particular circumstances of a proceeding.
There are two distinct steps in giving discovery: (a) the provision of a list of documents and (b) the production of the documents themselves. Rule 20.17(1) provides that a party “gives discovery” to another by providing a list of documents in accordance with Rule 20.18. A list of documents is prepared in the form of Federal Court Form 38, which is available from the Federal Court website. The list of documents must be sworn or affirmed by a suitable representative of a party: that is, someone with sufficient knowledge regarding the documents to which the list of documents relates.73 Rule 20.17 provides that a list of documents must outline, in some degree of detail, the documents falling within the categories that are or were in a party’s possession or control. Where a document is no longer, but once was, in the party’s possession or control, an explanation must be given as to when and how the document left the party’s possession. The list of documents must also set out documents over which a party claims privilege.
Rule 20.32 provides that a party may seek an order from the court for the production of documents referred to in a list of documents. Such an order is usually made prospectively at the same time as other orders regarding discovery. The usual course is for copies of documents to be produced electronically from one party to another unless there is some particular reason for some other order (e.g., if the authenticity of a document is disputed, it may be necessary to produce the original version of the document).
A party’s discovery obligations are ongoing.74 That is, after the provision of the list of documents occurs, a party is under an ongoing obligation to notify the other party if it uncovers a document that is within the discovery categories ordered but which is not in the list of documents. This may be due to oversight or because the document was created after the list of documents was created. However, a party does not have to produce privileged documents that are created after the proceeding commenced.75
184.108.40.206 Refusal to produce documents
There are two bases on which a party can seek to restrict production of a document, whether in whole or in part (i.e., by masking parts of the document).
First, a party may refuse to produce a document on the grounds of legal professional privilege or public interest privilege.76 Procedurally, the usual course in relation to disputed claims of privilege involves (a) a party, in its list of documents, asserting that a document is privileged from production; (b) if there is a dispute about the claim of privilege (e.g., on the basis that such a document could not be privileged, or that privilege in the document has been waived either expressly or implicitly), the other party filing an interlocutory application seeking an order compelling production of the document, for example, under Rule 20.32 of the Federal Court Rules 2011 (Cth), supported by an affidavit or a list of correspondence or undisputed documents under Rule 17.02; and (c) the court deciding whether to grant the order compelling production of the document at a hearing.
Second, a party may seek to restrict production of a document on the basis of commercial confidentiality. Often, in patent proceedings, the litigants will be competitors. Documents produced may disclose commercially confidential matters. The usual course is for parties to negotiate a suitable protocol for dealing with such documents prior to production. For example, the parties may agree that the documents are only to be produced to external lawyers and counsel and to expert witnesses, but not to representatives of the party themselves. If the parties are unable to agree on a suitable protocol for dealing with confidentiality, it may be necessary to seek orders dealing with such issue from the docket judge.
220.127.116.11 Alternative procedures to discovery
The Federal Court of Australia encourages flexible and alternative ways of obtaining evidence that a party may otherwise seek by way of discovery. Examples of this in a patent context are product and process descriptions. In the context of proving infringement of a product or process claim, it may often be difficult for a party to know which documents to seek from the other or to prove from documents alone whether such a process infringes all the integers of a claim. Intellectual Property Practice Note (IP-1) paragraphs 6.14–6.16 state that, in such a situation, a court may order an alleged infringer to prepare and serve a sworn statement from a suitably knowledgeable person as to the nature of the alleged infringer’s product or process to allow the other party to make out its case on infringement or to seek documents in a more targeted manner.
Notices to produce are another process by which a party can seek documents from another party. While the precise boundaries between a notice to produce and discovery by way of categories can appear unclear, the primary difference is that notices to produce are a more targeted process and must be directed to the production of specifically identified documents. There are two kinds of notices to produce. The first is requests for documents referred to in a party’s pleading or affidavit, which occurs without the supervision of the court unless there is a dispute as to the notice (e.g., a dispute as to whether the pleading or affidavit in fact “refers to” the document sought in the notice).77 The second is orders for the production to the court of certain documents.78 Production under Rule 30.28 of the Federal Court Rules 2011 (Cth) is not limited to during trials, and a practice has developed of parties seeking production of documents before the registrar under Rule 30.28 at any time in a proceeding. Documents sought under this rule are not only limited to documents referred to in an affidavit or pleading.79
Finally, documents may be sought from nonparties by way of subpoenas for the production of documents.80 Subpoenas are governed by Part 24 of the Federal Court Rules 2011 (Cth) and are also addressed in Parts 1–10 of the Subpoenas and Notices to Produce Practice Note (GPN-SUBP). Subpoenas are a substantial topic in their own right, and it is beyond the scope of this section to deal with them in any detail. Like discovery, there is not a “right” to a subpoena. Subpoenas may only be issued with leave of the court.81 Subpoenas are issued by the court, not a party, so compliance is owed to the court, not the party seeking the subpoena. Given that a failure to comply with a subpoena constitutes contempt of court,82 and subpoenas impose burdens on nonparties to the litigation, there are detailed and strict rules regarding the form and service of subpoenas.83 Like discovery, subpoenas will usually seek the production of categories of documents. However, those categories will usually need to be more confined and prescriptive than categories sought on discovery, owing to the fact that the subpoena recipient is a nonparty and will not be familiar with the issues in a proceeding.
A further difference between discovery on the one hand and notices to produce and subpoenas on the other is that a category for discovery may be more broadly described and a party giving discovery has the obligation to search for and produce all documents relevant to the proceedings within that category. A notice to produce and a subpoena generally require greater specificity of description of the documents sought and the recipient is entitled to read the described category sought narrowly and produce only documents strictly within that category.
18.104.22.168 Pre-action or preliminary discovery
Rules 7.22 and 7.23 of the Federal Court Rules 2011 (Cth) provide for two types of pre-action discovery. Rule 7.22 allows a prospective applicant to obtain discovery from a third party to ascertain the description of a prospective respondent, subject to satisfying the jurisdictional prerequisites set out in Rule 7.22(1) and the court’s discretion in Rule 7.22(2). Rule 7.23 allows a prospective applicant to obtain discovery from a prospective respondent of documents directly relevant to the question of whether the prospective applicant has a right to obtain relief, subject to satisfying the jurisdictional prerequisites in Rule 7.23(1) and the court’s discretion in Rule 7.23(2). That is, subject to those matters, Rule 7.23 allows a prospective applicant to “fish” for a case against a prospective respondent.
Each of the jurisdictional prerequisites in Rule 7.23(1) must be satisfied. A prospective applicant must satisfy the court that it reasonably believes that it “may” have the right to obtain relief in the court from a prospective respondent and that, after making reasonable inquiries, it does not have sufficient information to decide whether to start a proceeding in circumstances where the documents sought by discovery would assist in making the decision.
The mechanism under Rule 7.23 can be useful for obtaining documents to determine whether a product being sold in Australia is being made using a patented process.