The President of the EPO issued a decision on 1 April 2020 concerning oral proceedings before examining divisions. A notice was also issued, which provides additional information regarding oral proceedings held by videoconference.
According to the President's decision, oral proceedings before examining divisions will take place by videoconference, unless there are serious reasons for the oral proceedings to take place on the premises of the EPO. The decision comes into force on 2 April 2020 and will apply to all summons to oral proceedings notified on or after that date.
The previous default position was for oral proceedings before examining divisions to take place on the premises of the EPO, although it was open to applicants to request instead that the oral proceedings were held by videoconference. The President's decision therefore represents a significant change in practice, since it means that the majority of examining division oral proceedings will now take place by videoconference.
It will be possible for applicants to request that oral proceedings instead take place on the premises of the EPO. However, unless there are "serious reasons" (such as the need to take evidence directly), the EPO will refuse the request and the oral proceedings will take place by videoconference. The EPO has indicated that generic concerns regarding the reliability of videoconferencing technology or non-availability of equipment are not serious reasons. Having said that, if technical problems on the day prevent the oral proceedings from being conducted without violating the applicant's right to be heard, a new summons to oral proceedings on a future date will be issued.
Although the current changes are limited to oral proceedings before examining divisions, the EPO is expecting to soon expand videoconferencing to opposition division oral proceedings. It remains to be seen whether the Boards of Appeal will also introduce videoconferencing in place of hearings at their site in Haar, Munich.
Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have been the trigger for these provisions, they are not time-limited or conditional and will therefore remain in place even after current worldwide travel restrictions are lifted.
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