An extension of time to file evidence in an opposition has ultimately been found allowable on the basis of “other circumstances”, where emails regarding deadlines were sent but not received due to a blocklist.
Extensions of time to do certain acts under the Patents Act are available subject to requirements and regulations – which are more pointed in patent oppositions. To avoid opposition matters dragging out, the Australian Patent Office is reluctant to easily grant extensions of time to provide evidence.
Under Reg 5.9, the Commissioner of Patents has discretion to allow the extension of time to serve evidence in the opposition, provided they are satisfied that the requestor has made all reasonable efforts to comply with all relevant filing requirements, and has acted promptly and diligently at all times to ensure the appropriate evidence was filed within the period. Separately, the Commissioner also has discretion to allow an extension of time if there are exceptional circumstances that warrant the extension.
In a recent Australian Patent Office decision , an extension of time to file Evidence in Answer was allowed by the Delegate of the Commissioner of Patents despite the Hearings Branch of the Australian Patent Office rejecting the extension on the basis that the applicant had not acted promptly or diligently, and that exceptional circumstances did not apply.
The Australian (AU) attorneys acting for the patent applicant sent a number of emails over the course of a year to the applicant’s US attorneys to advise that the patent had been opposed, and that various deadlines were coming up. The AU attorneys received no response from the US attorneys regarding these emails, nor did they receive any bounce-back or error messages regarding the email communications. The deadline for the applicant to serve their Evidence in Answer was then missed, hence the extension request.
Hearings Branch says NO
While the Hearings Branch accepted that the email communication failure was unintended, they were not persuaded that the AU attorneys had acted reasonably, promptly and diligently.
The hearings branch noted that:
“[it] is reasonable to believe that the information associated with those emails would generally elicit a response and the failure to do so, especially over an extended period of time and in view of the strict deadlines in opposition matters, is quite remarkable and failing to follow up on the lack of response does not appear to be commensurate with acting reasonably or promptly and diligently.”
“The lack of any further enquiries does not seem reasonable, even if this was the “usual” practice, given the strict timelines that apply in opposition matters for filing evidence, for example, of which [the attorneys] would be well aware.”
In response, the AU attorneys asserted that there are many reasons why a client might not respond to an email, and although they may not do so, it does not create a duty on the part of a patent attorney to follow up. They also declared that the approach of the Hearings Branch to make any number of follow up emails and telephone calls “is a counsel of perfection, made with the benefit of hindsight”. The AU attorneys also pointed out that email is largely reliable, and users are used to seeing a non-delivery or bounce-back message if an email is not delivered. Consequently, with no such message, it is reasonable to assume that the email has been safely delivered.
The AU attorneys also argued that it would be onerous to require a patent attorney to follow up an email with some non-email form of communication, such as a phone call, when for example there are time differences involved and telephone calls are typically arranged in advance by email which in this case, would not have been received in any event.
The Hearings Branch was not persuaded.
Delegate says YES
As a result, a request to be heard in the matter was filed by the AU attorneys. The Delegate of the Commissioner of Patents was persuaded that there were other circumstances that warranted the extension – noting that email security measures had been implemented by the applicant to prevent cyber-attacks, which inadvertently and erroneously identified the AU attorneys emails ‘cyber-attack emails’, and as such were never received or redirected into a spam filter.
On the subject of follow up calls, the delegate noted that:
“with the benefit of hindsight, it can be envisaged that the situation could have been avoided (such as [the AU attorneys] making a ‘follow up’ phone call when no response was received to the 8 emails), such speculation is beyond the realm of what was reasonably beyond the control of the parties”.
The Delegate of the Commissioner of Patents granted the extension to file Evidence in Answer.