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The Battle of Names: AXA v AWT – High Court Upholds Company Names Tribunal Decision
The High Court (a Senior Court of England and Wales) recently had to determine whether the Company Names Tribunal was right in its decision to order AXA Wholesale Trading Ltd (AWT) to change its name due to its perceived similarity to the renowned French insurance and financial services giant, AXA UK PLC.
In October 2020 AWT was incorporated as a company. Merely a month later, AXA applied under Section 69(1) (b) of the Companies Act 2006 (CA 2006) for AWT to change its name. This section empowers companies to appeal to the Companies Names Tribunal, seeking a name change if another entity’s name bears sufficient similarity to its own. In this case, AXA argued that AWT’s name was too reminiscent of their own and that its use in the UK might mislead consumers by suggesting an unwarranted connection between the two entities. AXA’s global presence and substantial reputation in the UK played a pivotal role in their claim.
The Companies Names Tribunal upheld AXA’s objection and issued an order requiring AWT to alter its name within one month. AWT however, appealed to the High Court in the hope of overturning the Tribunal’s ruling.
The High Court’s Decision
The High Court ultimately dismissed AWT’s appeal. The Court’s decision was rooted in a determination to maintain consistency in its approach to appeals originating from the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) concerning trademark registration decisions.
The Court reasoned that the legal exercises carried out by IPO hearing officers and company names adjudicators were similar, thus warranting a consistent approach. After all, both sets of adjudicators shared the common ground of being IPO hearing officers themselves. Consequently, the Court established that an appeal against a decision of the Company Names Tribunal could be successful only in the presence of a clear error of law, or if a distinct and material error of principle was evident on a multifactorial assessment.
In addition to affirming the Tribunal’s decision-making process, the Court also considered the specific defences relied upon by AWT. AWT put forward the defence that their name was adopted in good faith under Section 69(4) (d) of the CA 2006. They argued that as they were successful in arguing good faith in another case between the two parties involving a different company ‘AXA Engineering Limited’ the Court should therefore be bound by that decision in respect of the current proceedings. AXA criticised this approach on the basis that AWT had failed to produce any evidence in the current proceedings.
AWT also asserted a second defence in that their name would not have had a significant adverse effect on AXA’s interests. To rely on this, the burden was on AWT to show what its current activities or intentions were. However, as with the first defence, AWT had failed to file any evidence in support of this argument.
Consequently, the Court rejected both defences and dismissed the appeal.
Impact on businesses
This case serves as a vital reminder of the importance of protecting brand identity in today’s competitive business landscape. It highlights that businesses, both new and established, must be cautious when selecting names that may bear any resemblance to well-known brands as the consequences of brand confusion can be far-reaching and financially burdensome.
For start-ups and entrepreneurs, this case highlights the need to conduct comprehensive research and due diligence during the naming process. Registering a company name that could be construed as similar to an existing industry giant can lead to legal challenges and significant rebranding expenses.
Should you require any assistance with establishing a business name, or if you are an established business and worried about another business having a similar name to yours, please do not hesitate to contact our Corporate and Commercial Team