A recent decision by the Chinese Supreme Court will allow local lower courts to hear patent disputes. The decision was viewed as a step in the wrong direction by many patent observers who were hoping that China would move toward a centralized IP court that, in turn, would lead to more uniform and predictable patent standards.
China’s court system has four levels: local or "grassroots" courts, intermediate courts, the high court, and the Supreme People’s Court. Currently patent cases are heard at the intermediate court level. The problem, according to the Supreme Court, is that the increase in intellectual property disputes is straining the intermediate court system, where only about 70 or the approximately 400 intermediate courts have judges with experience in patent disputes. Nationwide, China’s courts received over 87,419 first instance civil cases relating to intellectual property rights, an increase of 45.99% over the previous year.
While pushing patent cases to the lower courts will relieve the workload at the intermediate level, it could lead to more inconsistent decisions and, because lower courts can be expected to be more friendly to local industry, to increased protectionism. The shift to lower courts may also make it easier for patent trolls to drag multinational companies into patent infringement cases at the local level.
On the brighter side, the Supreme Court’s decision may be a positive development in the long-term by relieving the pressure on intermediate courts, which are now forced to decide cases hastily. In other words, the problem of too many patent disputes and too few patent-savvy judges will not be resolved anytime soon.