In response to our users' needs for timely delivery of services, the EPO has undertaken an initiative, known as Early Certainty, to speed up the patent-granting process. Launched in 2014 to accelerate delivery of search results, it was extended in mid-2016 to improve timeliness in substantive examination and opposition in order to streamline these stages of the patenting process, too.
In July 2016 we reached the target we had set ourselves under the Early Certainty from Search initiative of delivering all search reports (with written opinions on patentability) to applicants within six months of the filing of their application with the EPO. This has enabled us to significantly reduce our backlog of pending files. It means that companies and inventors seeking patent protection receive a sound basis early on for their decisions about whether or not to continue their procedure at the EPO. It also benefits the general public by enhancing transparency on pending cases in Europe, providing an overview of prior art and patentability at an early stage.
Building on this success, in 2016 we turned to the examination and opposition phases of the patent procedure. The EPO has already started to bring down the time taken to conclude the examination procedure, and by 2020 we aim to reach 12 months on average. To achieve this, we have made some internal changes, and we are also making it easier for applicants to take an informed decision on the further course of their application. For instance, since 1 July 2016 the EPO issues letters in randomly selected cases informing applicants about the intended start of examination, so they are able to better consider a withdrawal of their application and thus benefit from the extended possibilities for refunds. Withdrawals reduce the stock of pending applications and allow the EPO to focus on applications in which applicants have a real interest, which benefits all parties.
By 2020 the EPO aims to cut the overall duration of our opposition procedure for straightforward cases to within 15 months. To this end, we introduced a streamlined opposition procedure on 1 July 2016 that simplifies opposition proceedings and delivers decisions faster, while allowing parties more time to react and prepare for oral proceedings.
Within just a few months of launch, the new Early Certainty initiatives are already showing results. We plan to build on this over the coming years to improve the quality and timeliness of all our procedures.