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The President of the EPO issued a decision on 14 April 2020 concerning a pilot project to hold oral proceedings before opposition divisions via videoconference. A notice was also issued, which provides additional information regarding oral proceedings held by videoconference.
Although the EPO has offered the possibility of oral proceedings before examining divisions via videoconference since 1998, and has recently announced that the majority of examining division oral proceedings will occur via videoconference, videoconferencing has not previously been available for opposition division oral proceedings. The EPO has therefore decided to run a pilot project from 4 May 2020 until 30 April 2021, in which the suitability of videoconferencing for opposition division oral proceedings is assessed.
In contrast to the position with examining division oral proceedings, it will not be mandatory for opposition division oral proceedings to take place via videoconference. Rather, an opposition division hearing will take place via videoconference only with the agreement of the opposition division and all parties. Further, oral proceedings will not be held by video conference if the opposition division has to take evidence or if there are other “serious reasons” for not doing so. The need for interpretation is currently given as an example of a serious reason.
The EPO will allow the parties, their representatives and any accompanying persons (such as technical experts) to connect to the videoconference from separate locations, provided that “the number of additional participants does not impair the efficient conduct of the oral proceedings”. In addition, oral proceedings before opposition divisions are open to the public in most cases, and so members of the public will be able to follow opposition division oral proceedings held by videoconference either remotely or by attending the premises of the EPO where the opposition division is set up.
It will be interesting to see whether there is widespread engagement with this pilot project over the coming months. Ongoing disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic means that opposition division oral proceedings are not currently being held at the premises of the EPO, and may not resume for some time. It will not always be in the interest of all parties to hold oral proceedings (and thus receive a first instance decision) sooner rather than later. There may therefore not be many instances in which all parties agree to videoconferencing, given the alternative is a postponement. It will also be interesting to see whether the EPO persists with the project on a voluntary basis after April 2021, or if it decides to move towards making videoconferencing mandatory, as it has for examining division oral proceedings.