NIPC opened for business at Lancaster Buildings 77, Deansgate in Manchester on 1 May 1997, the day that New Labour was elected. The set was the first full time intellectual property set outside London. All but one of the founding members were members of New Court, then the oldest patent set in London. Thomas Terrell, author of the leading treatise on patents, and Lewis Boyd Sebastian, author of The Law of Trade Marks etc had practised there. So, too, had Mr Justice Whitford and Mr Justice Lloyd-Jacob, the first two judges of the Patents Court. NIPC’s founder, Jane Lambert, had intended the set to be an annexe of New Court but not everybody in those chambers wanted an annexe. NIPC opened with those who did.
Jane saw the need for a specialist intellectual property set in the North shortly after she had joined New Court. She was consulted by a Yorkshire company which complained of passing off. Though she lived in Holmfirth and retained a seat in Manchester her instructing solicitor, insisted on a conference with “London counsel”. Thus she was forced to take the 06:15 London train from Wakefield where her clients spotted her in the dining car. Travelling first class were a partner of her instructing solicitors, an assistant solicitor, an articled clerk (trainee solicitor), the managing director of her client company and its finance director and their patent agent. As the train approached King’s Cross Jane returned to standard class while her clients took up their seats in first. She glimpsed them again in the taxi queue as she set off on foot for the Temple. They arrived in chambers about 10 minutes after she did. New Court is a wonderful 17th century building but it was rather Dickensian. Paper peeled from the ceiling and door handles came off in the hand. Jane gave the clients the advice they sought for which her clerk sent them a handsome fee note. The day out must have cost the client thousands and it came as no surprise to Jane that they compromised a perfectly winnable claim on the ground that the costs and inconvenience of asserting their rights in London would exceed any possible advantage to be gained from such litigation.
Yet Jane’s instructing solicitors’ insistence on going to London was understandable. In the 1980s chancery business in the North was conducted by His Honour Judge Blackett-Ord, styled the Vice-Chancellor of the County Palatine of Lancaster, and two other circuit judges. They spent much of their time on the road and their lists included many non-chancery cases. There were three chancery chambers in Manchester, another two in Liverpool and individual chancery practitioners in various general common law sets in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle. There were no intellectual property specialists but all chancery practitioners were prepared to accept instructions on passing off, copyright case or trade marks. Such arrangements were adequate for boundary disputes and personal insolvency but not for heavy chancery or commercial work.
At that time the metropolitan county of Greater Manchester had a population of just under 3 million, about the same as Munich or Milan, and greater than the population of many European capitals. Yet despite an excellent university, a famous football team, a fine repertory theatre and an international airport Manchester had none of the feel of a metropolis. Though there were still a few mills and factories very few public companies were run from Manchester. Financial services were offered by branch offices of London institutions. Most of the best shops and certainly the best housing were to be found in suburbs like Wilmslow, where estate agents made much of a home’s proximity to the station or airport and, hence, access to the capital.
Very much the same could have been said of the slightly smaller metropolitan counties of Merseyside, West and South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear and the West Midlands. Leeds had a slight advantage over the rest of the region in that several large building societies were based nearby. As they required expert professional advice from time to time, firms like Hammond Suddards, Dibb Lupton and Simpson Curtis began to develop specialist expertise though they still conducted their litigation in London.
Jane pondered why such large cities lacked the polish and excitement of cities of similar size in other parts of the world and concluded that one of the reasons was an inadequate legal infrastructure. She reasoned that businesses need to manage risk if they are to invest. In order to manage risk they need immediate access to specialist legal advice and a local forum for the resolution of disputes.
Her arguments were considered by the Lord Chancellor’s Department when Judge Blackett-Ord retired in 1987. For a time it seemed that the Lord Chancellor would not appoint a successor and that all chancery cases would have to proceed in London. Under the leadership of Jane’s deputy head of chambers the Manchester chancery bar remonstrated with the Department. Jane’s contentions formed part of the bar’s written submissions. The government agreed to appoint Mr. Justice Scott as Vice-Chancellor to sit in the North for half of each term. Shortly afterwards, Mercantile Courts were established in Manchester and Liverpool to hear banking, insurance and other cases that would otherwise have gone to the Commercial Court. Those reforms enabled almost any business dispute to be resolved in the North.
Once there was an adequate local forum for resolving most intellectual property disputes Jane Lambert saw an opportunity for herself and her colleagues in New Court. She took a five year lease to Lancaster Buildings, appointed a clerk and opened the set with four tenants.
Almost as soon as NIPC opened, Jane was briefed in some important cases which were later reported such as Sapey v Trianco Redfyre Ltd on patent infringement, Kooltrade Ltd. v XTS Ltd on groundless threats and easyGroup IP Licensing Ltd. v Niagara Healthcare Plc.
The set was one of the first in the country to upload a website. It rapidly gained a lot of followers. So widely was the site admired that the set was nominated for The Lawyer of the Year awards at The Mayfair Hotel in 1998 in the multimedia category. Becausethe Bar Council did not at that time have itsown website, NIPC co-ordinated the Bar Council’s campaign against income tax assessment on the arising as opposed to cash basis.
Jane Lambert was one of the first practitioners to understand the importance of the Woolf reforms. Her articles on the NIPC website and her publications gained thousands of readers around the world. They were mentioned by the eminent Washington Post reporter Tom Reed as well as in The Lawyer and The Times. She was asked to speak at seminars for the Bar for which she was commended by the Chair of the Bar.
Yet the early years were not easy. Less than two years after NIPC opened, Parliament passed the Access to Justice Act 1999 which abolished legal aid for business disputes. That reduced dramatically the volume of work almost overnight for although NIPC members did not act for many assisted parties there was a legally aided litigant somewhere in almost every dispute. The set lost members and staff including all but one of the founder members and was forced into a number of short-lived mergers with a common law set in London and two in Manchester between 1999 and 2004 both of which disbanded. It was upon the failure of the last set that NIPC sought premises in the Huddersfield Media Centre in November 2004.
The move to Huddersfield, however, marked a change in the set’s fortunes. It coincided with the introduction of public access which allows counsel to accept instructions without the intervention of a solicitor or other professional intermediary. The move provided an opportunity to develop a new kind of intellectual property practice tailored to the needs of start-ups and other small businesses. These included new services such as inventors clubs in Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield and intellectual property clinics at various towns and cities in the North of England. With the further relaxation of the rules on how barristers may practise, Jane Lambert set up NIPC Ltd to manage her members’ practices and to market their skills and knowledge through conferences, networking and publications. The company has recently appointed Jill Hayfield as senior clerk and manager and manager of NIPC.
Many sets have disappeared since 1997 including regrettably its former parent set but NIPC has survived and is now stronger than ever. It has achieved its mission of providing high quality but affordable specialist intellectual property services to businesses and individuals in West Yorkshire through its IP Yorkshire network. It aspires to realizing its vision of “becoming a powerful set in all aspects of intellectual property and technology law in this country and beyond.”