EPO announces move to videoconference for opposition hearings
Hearings are a common feature of European patent procedure, allowing a swift conclusion to be reached during examination, during a post-grant dispute (an “opposition”), and in the appeal process. Until recently, it was usual for hearings to take place in-person at the EPO.
The EPO offers applicants the option of attending hearings by videoconference (VC) where an impasse has been reached with an examiner, providing a efficient way to determine an outcome for an application. Since April 2020, given the restrictions posed due to Coronavirus, all examination hearings have been conducted in this way.
During the same period the EPO has allowed opposition hearings to be conducted by VC where the patentees and opponents both agree to that approach. Otherwise, the parties had the option to request a hearing in person. In our experience, very few parties agreed to this approach. As a result we have seen many opposition hearings being postponed where lockdown restrictions have prevented a party from attending – and often at the last minute.
What has changed?
Following an announcement by the EPO this week, all opposition hearings will be held by VC. This scheme will run from 4 January 2021 until 15 September 2021, pending a reassessment of its merits. This means that parties no longer have the option to request a hearing in-person, unless there are serious reasons against holding the hearing by VC.
For the time being there has been no change of position regarding appeal hearings, which can be held by VC on request, but still require agreement of all parties involved.
This change to opposition hearings has no doubt come about in an attempt by the EPO to clear the backlog of cases resulting from the lockdown this year. The slow uptake of parties to agree to hold opposition hearings by VC, often for tactical reasons, has resulted in an increasing number of cases remaining unresolved, while awaiting a hearing date at the EPO. The EPO has now taken this step of imposing VC hearings on parties that were otherwise unwilling to adopt the use of technology in this way.
At Forresters, we have been well prepared in ensuring that our attorneys have access to VC technology, enabling us to take part in hearings remotely. Using VC technology means a reduction in travel costs and provides greater certainty for parties in ensuring a decision is reached in the expected timescale.
It is not yet clear whether the EPO intends to extend this scheme, to make the switch to holding opposition hearings by VC permanent. It is also possible that a similar stance will be taken with future appeal hearings, should this move turn out to be a success.
The notice from the EPO can be read here.
If you have any questions about this change, or any aspect of EPO procedure, please contact your usual Forresters attorney.