In an attempt to accelerate the prosecution of important European patent cases, the European Patent Office (EPO) has now decided on a system for prioritizing the handling of certain stages of prosecution and certain types of European applications. This system should allow the EPO to deal with the significant backlog and delays which had recently affected many European patent applications.

In particular, on 3 July 2014 the EPO announced that they have introduced a new scheme to improve the legal certainty of pending patent applications.
Under what they have called the “Early Certainty from Search” scheme, the EPO will aim to issue all search reports and the associated written opinions on patentability within six months from the filing of the European application. The EPO will also endeavour to prioritise the completion of its work on those European applications on which it has already started examination, over beginning the examination work on new European applications. Furthermore, the EPO will make every effort to expedite the grant of a European patent once a positive search opinion has been issued for the underlying European application.

In addition to the above, the EPO will seek to prioritise the processing of those European patent applications where substantiated observations are filed by third parties who identify themselves. In fact, third party observations can be filed at the EPO on any pending application, and they can be filed either anonymously or, if the third party so wishes, with full identification of the third party. The EPO has decided to prioritise those third party observations where the third party agrees to identify itself, presumably because the EPO feels that the latter category of third party observations are often more substantiated than those filed anonymously.

The EPO will also give priority to oppositions, as well as to requests for limitation or revocation in general. Indeed, recently the time from beginning to end of an opposition was felt to be quite long by both patent owners and the public, so an acceleration of such proceedings is surely a welcome step in the direction of legal certainty. In the same way, while post-grant limitation and revocation proceedings are not as lengthy as opposition proceedings, an effort to accelerate the limitation and revocation proceedings as well will benefit not only the patent owner who can initiate such proceedings but also the public who may be watching the outcome of such proceedings and may want to know as soon as possible what new form, if any, the patent will take after being subjected to such proceedings.

In the EPO’s intention, the new scheme will be beneficial to companies and inventors seeking patent protection in Europe, as it will ensure timely delivery of all search reports and opinions on their applications, thus allowing them to have a sound basis for their strategic patenting decisions at an early stage. The new scheme will also be beneficial to the general public, as it will increase the transparency of pending European patent rights, allowing access to an overview of prior art and patentability early on.

According to the EPO, the new scheme enjoys the support of users of the patent system, which was expressed by the users themselves in the consultation exercise which the Office conducted during the first half of 2014. The new scheme is surely a most welcome attempt by the EPO to provide a better service both to applicants and to the public, and will certainly make proceedings before the EPO more attractive and user-friendly.

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