According to a decision of the President of the EPO, videoconferences will become the standard format for oral proceedings before the examining divisions, opposition divisions, the Legal Division, and the Receiving Section of the EPO from 1 January 2023. Oral proceedings may only be held in person at the request of a party or at the instigation of the division, if there are serious reasons against holding the oral proceedings by videoconference.

Prior to the president’s decision, the EPO conducted a satisfaction survey as part of the pilot project for oral proceedings by videoconference before opposition divisions during the Covid-19 pandemic. 77% of the 342 respondents who had participated at least once in oral proceedings by videoconference before opposition divisions rated it as “good” or “very good”. Benefits are considered to include greater transparency through easier public participation, cost reductions for the parties, direct access to real oral proceedings for trainee patent attorneys and a positive environmental impact.

Despite the advantages of videoconferencing for oral proceedings, the announcement is somewhat surprising in view of the Enlarged Board of Appeal case G 1/21, where in the reasons for the decision, para. 45, the in-person oral proceedings are still referred to as the optimum format and default option, which the parties can only be denied for good reasons. Even though the Enlarged Board of Appeal limited the scope of the decision to second instance oral proceedings (see News of 23 July 2021), one may still argue that the grounds given by the Enlarged Board of Appeal should likewise apply to first instance proceedings. In view of this, it will be interesting to see how the first instance divisions will handle requests for in-person hearings and what kind of reasons will be considered serious enough to justify an in-person oral hearing.