The European Patent Office has today announced that it will continue to conduct hearings by videoconference as its default position.
Hearings, also known as 'oral proceedings' at the EPO, are arranged where the parties or the EPO requests them. They are typically arranged during examination proceedings where the applicant and Examining Division cannot reach agreement on the text for grant, or in opposition proceedings where one or both parties asks for it. A final decision is usually announced at the hearing.
While hearings by videoconference have been available for many years, the default position was for hearings to be conducted in person on the premises of the EPO. It was only in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that the EPO announced a pilot project that made hearings by videoconference the default. The pilot project has since been extended and expanded multiple times.
Hearings can still be arranged in person when there are serious reasons against holding them by videoconference. Examples of such reasons include accessibility issues with the use of screens and cases which require the demonstration of the haptic features of an object.
The highest judicial body of the EPO, the Enlarged Board of Appeal, has previously considered the legality of mandatory hearings by videoconference. In that case, G 1/21, the Enlarged Board decided that conducting a hearing by videoconference, even where one or more of the parties does not consent, was permissible under a state of general emergency which impaired the parties' possibilities to attend in-person oral proceedings at the EPO premises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The Enlarged Board carefully reserved its judgment on the legality of mandatory hearings by videoconference outside a state of general emergency. Legal challenges to the EPO's decision to compel the use of videoconference technology are likely to follow.