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The EPO extends the use of video conferencing

The European Patent Office (EPO) can schedule hearings (referred to as “oral proceedings”) either before the Examining Divisions during the examination of a patent application, or before the Opposition Divisions during opposition proceedings following the grant of a patent.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, oral proceedings were conventionally held in person at the EPO offices in either Munich or The Hague. The EPO did allow oral proceedings before the Examining Divisions to be held by video conference, although this was relatively rare. However, oral proceedings before the Opposition Divisions, which typically involve several different parties and potentially also simultaneous interpretation, had to be held in person.

At the outset of the pandemic, in addition to making more extensive use of video conferencing for oral proceedings before the Examining Divisions, the EPO initiated a pilot project in which oral proceedings before the Opposition Divisions could be held by video conference with the consent of all parties to the proceedings.

The EPO subsequently decided to extend this pilot project to 15 September 2021 and that, as of 4 January 2021, oral proceedings before the Opposition Divisions are to be held by video conference, even without the consent of the parties, unless there are serious reasons not to do so. The EPO has also announced that such serious reasons include parties to the proceedings being unable to follow proceedings held by video conference, for example due to visual impairment, or the need to demonstrate or inspect an object at the hearing.

The Boards of Appeal, which are not part of the pilot project, have also been conducting oral proceedings by video conference since the start of the pandemic, but only with the consent of the parties to the proceedings. However, the Boards of Appeal have now also announced that, as of 1 January 2021, they will also be scheduling oral proceedings by video conference even without the consent of the parties.

The transition to the use of video conferencing for conducting oral proceedings is a significant change in practice and has involved a substantial investment in video conferencing infrastructure by the EPO. Although the EPO has not confirmed their intentions for after the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic have been lifted, it seems likely that the use of video conferencing will continue to be widespread.

The greater use of video conferencing by the EPO is a very welcome change of practice as it provides clear benefits for patent applicants, including by reducing the cost of attending oral proceedings, not to mention clear benefits to the environment by eliminating the need for parties to travel to the EPO offices.

The transition to video conferencing also means that anyone is able to view opposition proceedings before the Opposition Division as a spectator by searching for upcoming oral proceedings on the EPO website and requesting a link to attend.

Other articles: Oppositions hearings by video conference

Author: David Gwilliam

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