BOARDS OF APPEAL
Decisions of the Technical Boards of Appeal
Decision of Technical Board of Appeal 3.4.1 dated 14 August 1991 T 669/90 - 3.4.11
Composition of the Board:
G D. Paterson
H. J. Reich
Patent proprietor/Appellant: American Telephone and Telegraph Company
Opponent/Respondent: Telefunken electronic GmbH
Headword: Inviting observations/ ATT
Rule: 67 EPC
Keyword: "Misleading EPO communication" - "No invitation to file observations" - "Decision based on new facts and evidence without inviting observations" - "Substantial procedural violation" - "Inventive step (no)" - "Appeal not allowable" - "No refund of appeal fee possible"
I. If the EPO sends a communication which (on a reasonable interpretation) misleads a party into believing that it is not necessary to defend its interests by filing observations in reply to new facts and evidence filed by an adverse party, and if such new facts and evidence then form the basis for a decision adversely affecting the misled party, the latter has not had "an opportunity to present its comments within the meaning of Article 113(1) EPC. Such a procedure is also not a fair procedure and is contrary to the principle of good faith governing relations between the EPO and parties to proceedings before it (Decision T 22/89 dated 26 June 1990 not followed).
II. Following the late filing of new evidence by an opponent, if the EPO intends to consider such evidence in view of its relevance to the decision to be taken, then in the absence of observations upon such evidence by the patent proprietor, it is necessary within the meaning of Article 101(2) EPC to invite the proprietor to present his comments by filing observations before the case can be decided on the basis of such evidence. This necessity follows both from Article 113(1) EPC and from the general principles of procedural law applicable under Article 125 EPC
Summary of Facts and Submissions
I. The appellant is owner of European patent No. 0 138 517.
Claim 1 reads as follows:
Claims 2 and 3 are dependent on Claim 1.
II. The patent was opposed by the respondent on the grounds mentioned in Article 100(a) EPC, referring inter alia to the prior art which can be derived from documents:
III. Documents D3-1, D3-2 and D4 had been cited in a letter dated 30 October 1989 filed subsequently to the notice of opposition, which letter was enclosed with a communication on Form 2937.1 to the appellant dated 23 November 1989 with the box "Take note" crossed. No observations in reply to the letter dated 30 October 1989 were filed by the appellant. On 21 June 1990 the Opposition Division revoked the patent on the ground that the subject-matter of Claim 1 did not involve an inventive step. The late-filed documents D3-1 and D4 were admitted into the opposition in view of their relevance, but document D-2 was not considered sufficiently relevant to be admitted. ...
IV. An appeal against this decision was lodged by the appellant, requesting that the decision under appeal be set aside, the patent maintained (unamended) and the appeal fee refunded.
V. In support of his requests and contrary to the findings in the decision under appeal as derived from the respondent's late-filed submissions, the appellant argued essentially as follows:
(e) The crossing of the "Take note" box instead of the box "File observations within a period of ... months" in the communication (EPO Form 2937.1) dated 23 November 1989 - informing the appellant about the respondent's new arguments based on new references D3-1 and D4 - constituted a representation from the Opposition Division that no observations from the appellant were required. The information in the communication - contrary to Decision T 22/89 dated 26 June 1990 - constituted a discouragement to the appellant to file observations, an "ample time" for filing observations being of no use if no time limit has been set and beyond that, if there has been a discouragement to file observations, since there is no point in filing observations if it has been represented that they are not necessary. The Opposition Division, however, subsequently based its decision mainly on documents D3-1 and D4; in this circumstance it was "necessary" to invite observations prior to issuing the decision having regard to Article 101(2) EPC, and failure to do so also breached Article 113(1) EPC. Furthermore, failure to invite observations in this circumstance constituted a breach of the principle of good faith which governs relations between the EPO and the parties coming before it In any case, there was a substantial procedural violation which justifies the refund of the appeal fee.
VI. The respondent requested the appeal to be dismissed, and submitted the following arguments:
Reasons for the Decision
1. Inventive step
Therefore, Claim 1 is considered to lack an inventive step within the meaning of Article 56 EPC. Claims 2 and 3 fall because of their dependency on Claim 1
2. Request for refund of the appeal fee
2.1 As set out in paragraph V(e) above, the appellant has requested refund of the appeal fee on the basis that there was a breach of the principle of good faith and a substantial procedural violation by the Opposition Division, in that the further observations of the respondent dated 3 October 1989 based upon new prior documents were sent to the appellant, without any invitation to file observations in reply prior to the issue of the decision adverse to the appellant and based upon such new references
Rule 67 EPC only allows an appeal fee to be refunded in opposition proceedings if the appeal is allowed. Since in the present case the appeal is to be dismissed, the appellant's request for refund must be rejected. Nevertheless, in view of the nature and importance of the submissions made by the Appellant, the Board makes the following observations
2.2 The conduct of the examination of an opposition is governed by Article 101(2) EPC, which requires that "the Opposition Division shall invite the parties, as often as necessary, to file observations, within a period to be fixed by the Opposition Division, as communications from another party or issued by itself". This wording makes it clear that such an invitation by the Opposition Division to file observations is distinct from a communication issued by the Opposition Division.
In the present case no communication was issued by the Opposition Division prior to the issue of its decision Furthermore, no invitation to file observations in reply to the Opponents' observations dated 3 October 1989 was issued either. The Appellant has contended that it was in fact "necessary" in the circumstances of the case for the Opposition Division to have invited observations from him, before issuing a decision revoking the patent on the basis of such observations and the new documents referred to therein This depends in the first place upon the meaning of the word "necessary" in the context of Article 101(2) EPC.
2.3 In this connection, as a preliminary matter the relationship of Article 101(2) EPC with Article 113(1) EPC should be considered. The provision in Article 113(1) EPC that "decisions of the EPO may only be based on grounds or evidence on which the parties concerned have had an opportunity to present their comments" was recognised in Decision J 20/85 as being "of fundamental importance for ensuring a fair procedure between the EPO and parties conducting proceedings before it". Nevertheless, the fact that in a particular case Article 113(1) EPC has been complied with does not necessarily mean that the procedure in that case has been "fair". In proceedings before the EPO (as in other judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings) not only is it necessary for the principle expressed in Article 113(1) EPC to be complied with: beyond this, it is always necessary that the procedure in such proceedings is fair to the parties involved.
The right to fair procedure and a fair hearing is one of the principles of procedural law generally recognised in the Contracting States, and has to be taken into account by the EPO under Article 125 EPC. In many circumstances, such as those of the present case, the right to fair procedure overlaps with the principle of good faith which, in accordance with the established jurisprudence of the Boards of Appeal (see decisions G 5/88, J 10/89 and J 3/87, for example) governs the relationship between the EPO and its users.
In the Board's view, even if Article 113(1) EPC has been literally complied with in a particular case, it is "necessary" for the EPO to invite a party pursuant to Article 101(2) EPC to file observations on a communication from another party or issued by itself, if the failure so to invite that party would result in unfair procedure or a violation of the principle of good faith. In this connection, it is of fundamental importance that a party to proceedings should not be taken by surprise by the grounds or evidence on which an adverse decision is based
2.4 In the present case, the new documents D3-1, D3-2 and D4 filed by the Respondent by letter dated 30 October 1989 were "not submitted in due time" in the opposition procedure, within the meaning of Article 114(2) EPC, and could therefore be disregarded by the EPO, depending in particular upon their relevance Whether such documents were to be admitted into the opposition procedure or disregarded was a matter to be decided by the Opposition Division. If all such documents were to be disregarded as not sufficiently relevant, it would have been pointless for the Appellant to file observations upon them
The Board notes that before receiving the decision under appeal, the appellant had no way of knowing whether the Opposition Division would regard documents D3-1 and D4 as not sufficiently relevant to be admitted into the opposition, in the same way as document D3-2 was considered insufficiently relevant to be admitted.
In the Board's view, the sending by the Opposition Division of these new documents and the accompanying letter under cover of a form having the "Take note" box crossed in combination with the "File observations " box left uncrossed implied that the Opposition
Division had decided that such new documents should not be admitted into the proceedings, and misled the Appellant into believing that there was therefore no need for the appellant to file observations upon such late-filed documents and the accompanying arguments of the respondent relating to them. The overall effect of the form was to discourage the filing of any observations in response.
Furthermore, having regard to this misleading communication by the Opposition Division, in the Board's view the issue of the decision of the Opposition Division without first informing the appellant in a further communication that two of the three newly introduced documents were considered to be not only sufficiently relevant to be admitted, but also potentially decisive against the appellant, and inviting observations thereon, was contrary to Article 113(1) EPC, which requires that parties "should have had an opportunity to present their comments" on grounds or evidence on which a decision is based. In the Board's view, if, as in the present case, the EPO sends a communication which (as a reasonable interpretation) misleads a party into believing that it is not necessary to defend its interest by filing observations in reply to new facts and evidence filed by an adverse party, and if such new facts and evidence then form the basis for a decision adversely affecting the misled party, the latter has not had "an opportunity to present its comments" within the meaning of Article 113(1) EPC.
Following the late filing of evidence by an opponent, if the EPO intends to consider such evidence in view of its relevance to the decision to be taken, then in the absence of observations upon such evidence by the patent proprietor, it is necessary within the meaning of Article 101 (2) EPC to invite the proprietor to present his comments by filing observations, before the case can be decided on the basis of such evidence, This necessity follows from both Article 113(1) EPC and Article 125 for the reasons previously discussed.
In this connection, the fact that the appellant had more than six months between receiving the new documents and the issue of the decision of the Opposition Division, in which he "could" have filed observations on such new documents, does not constitute an "opportunity" within the meaning of Article 113(1) EPC if, as in the present case, the appellant was in effect discouraged from filing such observations. Thus, this Board does not agree with the finding in Decision T 22/89, in similar circumstances, that the appellant in that case "had ample time (i.e. several months) to file observations if he had so wished", and that Article 113(1) EPC had not therefore been contravened.
Even if this Board were to follow Decision T 22/89 and to consider that in the present case Article 113(1) EPC had not (at least on a literal interpretation) been contravened, in the Board's view the procedure followed by the Opposition Division in the present case was not a fair procedure, and the principle of good faith governing the relationship between the EPO and parties to proceedings before it was violated in the particular circumstances of this case, having regard to the failure by the Opposition Division to invite observations from the appellant before the decision dated 21 June 1990 was issued.
2.5 The Board would make the following additional observations on the procedure followed by the Opposition Division in this case:
The Board is aware that the new documents and arguments filed with the respondent's letter dated 30 October 1989 were sent to the appellant under cover of Form 2937 2 by a formalities officer and not by a member of the Opposition Division itself, in accordance with the usual practice. Such practice seems very understandable, since it is clearly impractical for a technical examiner of an Opposition Division to study every letter filed in opposition proceedings before the EPO and to decide whether observations in reply should be invited, before it is sent to other parties. Nevertheless, the use of Form 2937.2 in this context, which has a choice of two boxes which may be crossed, seems inappropriate, since it (probably wrongly) implies that in appropriate cases the appellant will be invited to file observations within a specified period, and not just to "take note".
2.6 For the reasons set out above, if this appeal had been allowable the Board would have ordered a refund of the appeal fee under Rule 67 EPC in view of the substantial procedural violation which occurred
For these reasons it is decided that:
1. The appeal is dismissed.
2. The appellant's request for a refund of the appeal fee is refused.
1 This is an abridged version of the decision A copy of the full text in the language of proceedings may be obtained from the EPO Information Desk in Munich on payment of a photocopying fee of DEM 1.30 per page