Advancing quality through dialogue

Recent exchanges with users have continued to provide direct feedback on the development of the European patent system and helped to further develop a common understanding of quality. The exchanges took place in the framework of the Standing Advisory Committee before the EPO (SACEPO) and the first joint Stakeholder Quality Assurance Panels (SQAPs) of 2023.

SACEPO meeting on quality, digital transformation and the Unitary Patent

In his welcome address at the SACEPO meeting on 22 June, EPO President António Campinos highlighted the crucial role of SACEPO in “working towards an Office committed to high quality, digital transformation and sustainable development.” He added: “User feedback is the fuel driving development in EPO initiatives.”

The President emphasised the importance of the user feedback gathered through our extensive and independent User Satisfaction Survey, which attracted 7000 responses, and through the joint SQAPs. The SQAPs are unique in bringing together EPO experts and European patent attorneys to review selected EPO files and provide feedback on identified areas of good practice, as well as opportunities for learning and improvement. Commenting on the increase in the number of SQAPs in 2023, the President said: “With more assessors, we can look at quality from all angles.” The results of our latest round of User Satisfaction Surveys will be published in the coming weeks but they show very high and increasing levels of satisfaction with our search, examination and opposition services.

During the meeting, users received an update on the Unitary Patent which began on 1 June 2023, noting that the EPO had already registered 1 250 Unitary Patents in the first three weeks. SACEPO members appreciated the new option of filing requests for unitary effect already once the decision to grant the European patent has been issued and the detailed information available online in the Unitary Patent Guide and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Discussions on digital transformation covered the latest developments in MyEPO Portfolio and other online tools, as well as the state of play concerning legal changes to support digital transformation.

Finally, SACEPO members welcomed the EPO’s plans to improve the Guidelines revision cycle, which put the emphasis on the EPO providing feedback to users’ proposals. Vice-President for Legal and International Affairs, Christoph Ernst, thanked all SACEPO members for the lively exchange of views and reiterated the EPO’s commitment to act upon the input and feedback from users.

First SQAPs in 2023 take place on “search reports & written opinions” and “intermediate communications”

On 20 and 21 June, the first two joint SQAPs of 2023 took place, contributing further to the EPO’s goal of developing a common understanding of quality (see video). Thirty-seven participants including a mixture of patent attorneys and EPO senior experts made joint quality assessments of search reports and written opinions on the first day (six SQAPs), and of intermediate communications on the second day (six SQAPs).

Corina Sundermann, Senior Vice President Intellectual Property at Fresenius Kabi, who participated in the first day, stressed the importance of the panels on search reports and written opinions: “The basis of the examination is the search. There is no way to do a good examination if the search is not good enough.”

Consulting European Patent Attorney Chris Mercer, another participant, said: “It’s very useful to hear the point of view of the EPO staff, because it’s not always the same as our view. And getting the two things to coincide is often interesting, but usually results in a very good outcome.”

EPO expert Maryse Stoufs said: “This year’s SQAP is particularly important as, for the first time, we held panel discussions on intermediate communications issued prior to grant. These panels allow to align our views as expert EPO examiners with patent attorneys on what forms a high-quality patent procedure. The saying ‘It takes two to tango’ certainly holds true for the applicant-examiner dialogue that takes place during the procedure between a search report and the issuance of an intention to grant. It is thereby fundamental to listen to each other and make sure that we establish a common understanding with our users of what is good practice and what are the areas of improvement.”

In total, the assessors exchanged views on the quality of 72 granted patents.

SQAPs represent one of the most valuable feedback sources for the EPO, and offer users a regular opportunity to directly discuss the quality of our products with EPO experts in a structured and collaborative setting. The panels covered different technical fields aligned with the EPO’s technology communities: digital technologies; electronics and physics; health and agri-food; infrastructure and mechanics; energy, mobility and space technologies; and materials and production.

The findings from the latest SQAPs will be presented at the 11th meeting of the SACEPO Working Party on Quality at the end of November and published in the EPO’s annual Quality Report in June 2024. A detailed report on last year’s SQAPs will be included in the Quality Report 2022, which is part of the EPO’s Annual Review to be published on 28 June 2023.

In light of the success of last year’s SQAPs and the feedback gathered at meetings of the SACEPO Working Party on Quality, a further round of panels will follow in the second half of 2023, with the focus on assessing grants.

SACEPO Working Party on Quality

The June SACEPO meeting and the SQAPs follow the 10th meeting of SACEPO’s Working Party on Quality, which took place on 11/12 May (see video). Their focus was principally on interactions between users and the EPO, with break-out sessions allowing in-depth discussions on quality at the search and examination stages.

SACEPO members welcomed the EPO’s ongoing efforts to enhance consistency of practice, completeness of written opinions and communications (e.g. in relation to dependent claims) and substantiation of objections. Members also expressed a keen interest in the upcoming pilot on the shared area within MyEPO portfolio. They agreed that closer dialogue between applicants and examining divisions could save time for both parties.

An update followed on the EPO’s newly established Ombuds Office, which received its first 50 cases in 2022. This new service supports stakeholders requiring conflict resolution by adhering to principles of confidentiality and neutrality, with the overriding aim of improving the quality of the EPO’s services.

During the meeting, users also welcomed the EPO’s plans to take SQAPs to the next level in 2023 (as mentioned above).