There are a couple of options available in circumstances where a company seeks to register or use a similar company name to one already in use. These are:
- trade mark infringement (if the existing name is trade marked)
- passing off (a claim made that the new name is confusingly similar to the existing one, or;
- an application to the Company Names Tribunal pursuant to section 69 Companies Act.section 69 Companies Act.
The High Court recently heard an appeal from the Company Names Tribunal, in the case AXA Wholesale Trading v AXA  EWHC 1339 (Ch) and so I take a look at that appeal here.
The High Court had to decide whether the Company Names Tribunal had been entitled to require AXA Wholesale Trading Ltd (AWT) to change its name on the grounds that it was sufficiently similar to the name of the French insurance and financial services group AXA.
AWT was incorporated in October 2020. In November 2020 AXA applied under section 69(1)(b) of the Companies Act 2006 (CA 2006) to the Companies Names Tribunal for AWT’s name to be changed on the grounds that it was sufficiently similar to AXA’s name, and that the use of AWT’s name in the UK would be likely to mislead by suggesting a connection between AWT and AXA. AXA had worldwide insurance and financial services businesses and a substantial reputation and goodwill in the UK.
The tribunal agreed with AXA’s objection and made an order under section 73 of the CA 2006 requiring AWT to change its name within one month. AWT appealed the decision to the High Court.
The High Court dismissed AWT’s appeal against the tribunal’s decision. In considering the appeal, the High Court held that it would adopt the same approach as it did on appeals from the trade mark registration decisions of hearing officers in the UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO). The judge considered that this approach was appropriate as:
- The legal exercise undertaken by the hearing officers of the IPO and company names adjudicators were similar.
- The hearing officers and company names adjudicators were both IPO hearing officers.
Consequently, an appeal against a decision of the Company Names Tribunal would be allowed where there was an error of law, but where the decision was based on a multifactorial assessment the appeal court would be reluctant to interfere unless a distinct and material error of principle was shown.
The court held that defences of registration in good faith under section 69(4)(d) of the CA 2006 and lack of significant adverse effect on AXA’s interests under section 69(4)(e) of the CA 2006 were not made out.