The European Patent Office have announced the introduction of a new scheme, “Early Certainty from Search”, with the stated purpose of improving legal certainty on pending patent applications (see http://www.epo.org/news-issues/news/2014/20140703.html).
Under the new scheme, the European Patent Office will prioritise the handing of oppositions and revocations, as well as processing on these cases where observations are filed by third parties who identify themselves. The European Patent Office have also said that they will aim to issue search reports and written opinions within six months of an application being filed, will expedite grant on cases where a positive search opinion has issued, and will prioritise the completion of already-started examination files.
On the surface, this appears to be good news for applicants. However, whether there will be any actual benefit remains to be seen; given the notoriously poor labour relations at the European Patent Office, it is an open question as to how the increased workload will go down with the examining staff.
It is also important to consider the aspects of the examination process which are not being prioritised. In particular, since it appears that completion of examination on applications where it has already started is being prioritised over the starting of examination on new cases, applicants may find themselves waiting even longer than they do now before receiving a first examination report. Further, as the grant of cases where a positive search opinion has issued is being expedited, applicants may feel a pressure to ensure that their applications are “right first time”, and filed in a generally allowable state, even if this means filing claims which are narrower than an applicant may wish; better a narrow claim granted quickly than the chance of a broader claim being delayed for several years.
A further point to note is that cases with third-party observations will only be prioritised if the third party filing the observations has identified themselves; cases where observations are filed anonymously will presumably be treated as before. Anyone filing third-party observations should bear this in mind.