As reported earlier on this Blog here, the Enlarged Board of Appeal will have to decide whether or not the Boards of Appeal may properly summon parties to oral proceedings at their new premises in Haar.
But this will take some time. What’s happening in the meantime? There are hearings in Haar every single day. Will proceedings be stayed? Or will parties be re-summoned to Munich, as a matter of precaution? All these options would be highly uncomfortable for the Boards which are still struggling with a huge backlog and an ever increasing number of incoming appeals.
In a hearing of 11 March 2019 in Haar, Board of Appeal 3.3.01 was faced with a request to conduct the hearing in Munich; the patentee’s representative relied on the pending referral to the Enlarged Board of Appeal.
According to the minutes, the hearing in Haar was indeed postponed — but re-started at 1pm on the same day in the EPO’s building at Bob-van-Benthem-Platz 1 in Munich downtown, the previous premises of the Boards of Appeal. A smart move! See the EPO Register for any further information on the case; the reasoned decision is not out yet.
About three hours later, the patent was revoked. (Note that this patent had been at stake in proceedings at the FPC; see this Blog here.)
I sincerely hope that parties will not try to take advantage of the current legal uncertaintly about whether or not the venue in Haar is proper. Board 3.3.01 gave a clear sign that the venue may quickly be changed, if necessary.
The appellant Jostarndt Patentanwalts-AG had submitted various third party observations during the examination phase — but the patent had nevertheless been granted. Jostarndt lodged an appeal against the decision of the ED to grant EP'735 and argued that the raised objections re clarity had not been duly considered by the ED. Jostarndt took the view that it must be entitled to appeal since otherwise, because of the limited grounds for opposition, there is no legal protection against the ED’s failure to consider the objections under Art. 84 EPC. Further, Jostarndt argued that there was an intolerable gap of legal protection and made clear that it seeks to have this fundamental question clarified. The Board accordingly summoned to oral proceedings on 25 January 2019 to the premises of the Boards of Appeal in Haar. Now, here we are at the gist of the matter: The appellant requested that the hearing be re-located to Munich, since Haar is not listed in the EPC as one of the premises of the EPO; ¶V.
[Die Beschwerdeführerin] hat […] eine mündliche Verhandlung auch über die Zulässigkeitsfrage beantragt und stellte, nachdem die Kammer sie für den 25. Januar 2019 zu einer mündlichen Verhandlung in das Dienstgebäude der Beschwerdekammern nach Haar geladen hatte, Antrag auf Verlegung der Verhandlung nach München, da das Europäische Patentamt dort seinen Sitz habe, und Haar – anders als Den Haag – «im Europäischen Patentübereinkommen offensichtlich nicht als Ort für Handlungen oder Verhandlungen vorgesehen» ist.
The Board did not re-locate the hearing but rather cancelled it, and submitted the following questions to the EBoA (in the German language of the proceedings):
1. Ist im Beschwerdeverfahren das Recht auf Durchführung einer mündlichen Verhandlung gemäss Artikel 116 EPÜ eingeschränkt, wenn die Beschwerde auf den ersten Blick unzulässig ist?
2. Wenn die Antwort auf Frage 1 ja ist, ist eine Beschwerde gegen den Patenterteilungsbeschluss in diesem Sinne auf den ersten Blick unzulässig, die ein Dritter im Sinne von Artikel 115 EPÜ eingelegt und damit gerechtfertigt hat, dass im Rahmen des EPÜ kein alternativer Rechtsbehelf gegen eine Entscheidung der Prüfungsabteilung gegeben ist, seine Einwendungen betreffend die angebliche Verletzung von Artikel 84 EPÜ nicht zu berücksichtigen?
3. Wenn die Antwort auf eine der ersten beiden Fragen nein ist, kann die Kammer ohne Verletzung von Artikel 116 EPÜ die mündliche Verhandlung in Haar durchführen, wenn die Beschwerdeführerin diesen Standort als nicht EPÜ-konform gerügt und eine Verlegung der Verhandlung nach München beantragt hat?
1. In appeal proceedings, is the right to an oral hearing under Article 116 EPC restricted if the appeal at first sight appears inadmissible?
2. If the answer to question 1 is in the affirmative, is an appeal against the decision to grant a patent prima facie inadmissible which a third party (in the sense of Article 115 EPC) has lodged and justified by the fact that there is no alternative remedy under the EPC against a decision of the Examining Division not to take into account its objections concerning the alleged violation of Article 84 EPC?
3. If the answer to one of the first two questions is no, can the Board hold the oral proceedings in Haar without infringing Article 116 EPC if the appellant complains that this location is not in conformity with the EPC and has requested that the hearing be moved to Munich?
Q1 and Q2 are interesting in that they will clarify the extent of the right to be heard. The referring Board explicitly notes that an answer to Q3 will likely be needed, i.e. the answer to Q1 and/or Q2 will likely be ‘No’; see ¶3.4 and 4.1:
Die Kammer geht davon aus, dass die Frage nach dem richtigen Verhandlungsort auch im vorliegenden Fall, also trotz ihrer vorläufigen Einschätzung, die Beschwerde sei unzulässig, entscheidungserheblich ist; die Kammer folgt insoweit der herrschenden Rechtsprechung […], wonach einem Antrag der Beschwerdeführerin auf Durchführung einer mündlichen Verhandlung regelmäßig auch bei ersichtlich unzulässigen Beschwerden nachzukommen ist.
But when it comes to Q3, things can get interesting. The answer will essentially depend on whether the President of the European Patent Office or the Administrative Council of the European Patent Organisation, which authorised the President to rent the new office building and thus to relocate the Boards of Appeal to the municipality of Haar, had the power either to appoint organs of the Office within the meaning of Art. 15 EPC also outside the areas covered by the EPC (Art. 6(2) EPC including the Protocol on Centralisation, I(3)a), or whether Art. 6(2) EPC is to be interpreted in a way that ‘Munich’ does not mean the city of the same name but a whole (not more precisely defined) region, or the district (‘Landkreis’) of the same name, which borders on the city of Munich (which does not belong to the district of Munich, as it is a free city).
Let’s have a quick look at a map. The district Munich is marked-up in dark grey in the insert in the figure below. The new premises of the Boards of Appeal are located in Haar (marked-up in red):
The referring Board notes that it is not aware of the exact reasoning why the President took the view in 2016 that a relocation of the Boards of Appeal to a place outside the city limits of Munich was in accordance with the EPC, and that it thus has not yet formed its final opinion on the issue; ¶3.3. Well, this will now be something for the EBoA to find out.
Once more: Stay tuned …
UPDATE 2 March 2019:
I just noticed yet another twist in the file wrapper. Jostarndt has filed a second appeal in the same case, arguing that it had never been duly served with the decision of the ED and that the second appeal is thus still timely filed.