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The EPO and the fine art of complaining


In our lives we all run into situations about which we are not pleased, and at some time or other we all have felt the urge to voice our dissatisfaction to someone, either merely to vent or to demand compensation and achieve some satisfaction.

Direct experience with airlines having randomly cancelled my flights and with energy providers charging me for services I had never requested has taught me that complaining is akin to a fine art and that how effectively you deliver complaints may greatly impact the end results of the specific situation. It is not just about who you complain to, but also about what channel you choose to express your dissatisfaction. In today’s social media dominated world, voicing one’s dissatisfaction with a tweet has, perhaps unexpectedly, become yet another popular and often effective way of making oneself heard when things go wrong.

What happens, though, when dissatisfaction hits you in your professional life? What if the entity you would wish to complain to happens to be the European Patent Office (EPO)? How are you supposed to get your message across in the most polite, reliable and effective way?

Back in 2012, the EPO issued the first edition of a “Handbook of Quality Procedures”, a guide to preferred practices for applicants and their representatives, examiners and formality officers. Alongside other topics, this handbook describes the official procedure for filing complaints with the EPO and on how complaints should be handled by the EPO. It suggests that complaints be filed as early as possible, since this should increase the likelihood that the EPO will correct any mistakes that may have been made. Further, the handbook advises submitting complaints in writing, since this should make them easier to deal with, particularly if they are sent by e-mail to Directorate Quality Management Support (DQSM), which is the department appointed to handle complaints.

On the face of it, all this looks very promising, yet the handbook also indicates that the handling of complaints falls outside the normal patent procedure and that the DQSM has no authority to review legal decisions taken by other EPO departments. Therefore, the complaints procedure set in place by the EPO would appear to suffer from an inherent limitation: if the department I am expected to contact to report that I am dissatisfied with some procedural aspect does not have the power to actually review the conduct of the department responsible for that very procedural aspect, then I may have been offered an opportunity to vent, but I seem to stand very little chance of being properly listened to.

To be fair, a poll conducted among a number of authorised European representatives has suggested that very few of them have actually ever filed an official complaint or sought redress of a grievance at all. When that has happened, they have not always followed the DQSM procedure, preferring to directly contact the department involved with their issue. However, the general impression derived from the poll was that, whenever the issue was substantive, regardless of the route followed to file a complaint, it had been quite difficult to get anything done, and, more often than not, the promise contained in the Handbook of Quality Procedures that the EPO would reply within 30 days was not kept.

Earlier this year, the EPO has set up yet another channel through which users wishing to make a complaint about any of their product or service should get in touch with them. Apparently, this is intended to enable the EPO to harmonise the way it handles complaints and to address the underlying issues in a timely manner. In practice, an on-line form can now be filled in here.

It would be interesting to check, some time down the line, whether this new tool proves to be more effective. The form is preceded by a reminder that decisions on procedural requests are taken by the department in charge of the file concerned at that specific procedural stage, so this may suggest that, in case of substantive issues, contacting someone within the responsible division may still be a better way of tackling the problem. However, it may perhaps reduce the time needed to get some feedback from the EPO.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking before any action in reliance on it.

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