Monday, 30 October 2017

T 1889/13 - Right to non-overlapping boards?

In this opposition appeal, the appellant requested that the members of the board who were involved in decision T 1676/11 relating to a divisional application of the opposed patent be excluded from taking part in the present appeal proceedings for suspected partiality under Article 24(3) EPC.

The arguments of the appellant can be summarised as follows:

  • The critical issues of the present appeal were in essence the same as the critical issues in the previous appeal proceedings T 1676/11 concerning the divisional application. 
  • The board members having decided the appeal for the divisional application would have difficulty in re-examining and deciding the present case without having a preconceived or anticipatory judgment or without giving rise to suspicion of such preconceived or anticipatory judgment.

Reasons for the Decision
1. Scope of the interlocutory decision

The present decision was taken by the alternate board composition established under Article 24(4) EPC in order to decide on an objection of suspected partiality raised under Article 24(3) EPC (see above points II, VI). In accordance with the procedure described in decision T 1028/96, the board in its original composition decided in its interlocutory decision of 20 May 2015 that the objection was admissible (see above point V). Said interlocutory decision is binding on the present (alternate) board. The scope of the present decision is therefore limited to the allowability of the objection of suspected partiality.

2. Allowability of the objection

2.1 Legal basis of the objection

2.1.1 The appellant has not argued that there was any reason for exclusion under Article 24(1) EPC, nor does the present board see any basis for the application of Article 24(1) EPC either. The appellant raised an objection for suspected partiality under Article 24(3) EPC only. Under Articles 24(3) and 24(4) EPC, the deciding board should apply a twofold test, namely:

- Firstly a "subjective" test "in concreto" requiring evidence of actual partiality of the member or members concerned;

- Secondly an "objective" test "in abstracto" to determine if the circumstances of a case would allow a reasonably objective and informed person to conclude that he or she might have good reason to suspect the partiality of the member concerned.

(see G 2/08, interlocutory decision of 15 June 2009, not published in OJ EPO, Reasons point 4)

2.1.2 As far as the "subjective" test is concerned, the appellant has not alleged that there was actual partiality and the present board has no doubts about the personal impartiality of all members of the board in its original composition. The appellant's objections concern the "objective" test, namely the possibility that board members could give raise to an objectively justified fear of partiality due to their decision on similar legal and factual matters in an earlier case.

2.1.3 The Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal (RPBA) and the business distribution scheme for the Technical Boards of Appeal do not foresee any obligation to arrange for non-overlapping boards where similar legal and factual issues have to be decided in different cases. To the contrary, Article 7 of the business distribution scheme foresees that where appeals pending before a board are closely linked, in particular by involving similar legal or factual questions, the Chairman may order that the board shall decide in the same composition (Business distribution scheme of the Technical Boards of Appeal for the year 2013, Supplement to OJ EPO 1/2013, 12).

2.2 Possible conflicts between the Business Distribution Scheme and the desideratum of a detached board

2.2.1 Both the composition of the board in T 1676/11 and the original composition in the present case were determined by the chairman of Board 3310 in accordance with Article 1(2) of the Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal and the applicable business distribution scheme. Due to the identical classification of the applications underlying both the present appeal and T 1676/11, Board 3310 is competent for both cases which means that the members of the board in both cases had to be chosen from the members attributed to Board 3310.

2.2.2 The appellant argued that a board should not be put in a position wherein its members are forced to either confirm or not their previous own judgment. However, the right to a lawful judge also includes the right to a judicial body having a foreseeable composition in accordance with a predetermined business distribution scheme. There may be unavoidable conflicts between the wish for a completely detached board and the requirements of the business distribution scheme from which deviations are allowed only in specific circumstances. In cases where three or more proceedings are related to each other (e.g. a parent and two divisional applications), it would normally be impossible to compose three non-overlapping boards within the business distribution scheme.

2.2.3 In view of the potential conflicts with the business distribution scheme, the mere desire for a board which has not encountered any of the relevant factual and legal issues in a related case cannot justify an obligation to appoint non-overlapping boards in cases concerning divisional and parent applications in the absence of specific facts which are sufficient to raise specific concrete doubts on the ability of the board members to hear the appeal with an objective judicial mind (see J 15/04, Reasons point 8).

2.2.4 It follows that practical considerations and the procedural framework not only gave rise to a provision in the business distribution scheme encouraging identical compositions in closely linked cases (see above point 2.1.3), but may even require that overlapping or identical board compositions are established in cases which may involve closely linked questions.

2.3 Specific circumstances in view of the suspicion of partiality

2.3.1 The right to object against a judge for reasons of suspicion of partiality is meant to prevent a judge being influenced in his or her decision making - be it deliberately or inadvertently - by extraneous considerations, prejudices and predilections, i.e. by considerations other than the arguments he or she considers as being factually and legally relevant for the case under consideration. A suspicion of partiality might arise where there are circumstances possibly justifying a suspicion of a tendency to favour one or more of the parties or to discriminate against one of them. However, any such suspicion must be based on the specific facts of the case. It cannot be justified merely by the submission that a legal question was already decided in a certain way in a prior decision (see G 1/05, OJ EPO 2007, 362, Reasons point 23 with references to national laws).

2.3.2 There are no indications or evidence on file which may be used to rebut the assumption that all members of the original composition would decide on the merits of the present case in an unbiased manner. The two technically qualified members may have decided in a related case on similar technical and legal issues but they did not do so in such outspoken, extreme or unbalanced terms that it would preclude them from dealing with the present case with an open mind and without preconceived attitudes (see R 2/12, interlocutory decision of 26 September 2012, not published in OJ EPO, Reasons point 2.2; G 1/05, Reasons point 24).

2.4 Case law referred to by the appellant

2.4.1 In support of its argument that members of a board should not be put in a position where they are compelled to confirm or not to confirm their own previous judgment, the appellant relied, in particular, on decision T 1028/96. In this case, the board members who had decided the appeal proceedings leading to the grant of the patent had to be replaced in the opposition appeal proceedings, since the legal issues to be discussed in the opposition appeal proceedings were essentially the same as those relevant in the earlier ex-parte appeal proceedings. The board in T 1028/96 referred to Article 19(2) EPC which sets clear limits to overlaps between examining divisions and opposition divisions in the same file and took the position that such limitations should apply all the more to the second instance (T 1028/96, Reasons point 6.6). For the examining divisions assigned for a divisional and its parent application, no provisions exist which limit overlaps between the examining divisions. Accordingly, the examining division in the present case consisted of the same examiners as the examining division for the divisional application underlying decision T 1676/11.

2.4.2 In the view of the present board, cases involving grant and opposition appeal proceedings for the same file have to be clearly distinguished from cases involving parent and divisional applications, and not only in view of Article 19(2) EPC. A board which has taken a specific decision in ex-parte appeal proceedings may be compelled to directly interfere with its own earlier decision if the same issues are relevant in opposition appeal proceedings (for example, if the same amendments were allowed under Article 123(2) EPC before grant and were attacked under Article 100(c) EPC in opposition). Certain decisions taken in the ex-parte appeal proceedings may formally restrict (i.e. under Article 123(3) EPC) the possible outcome of opposition appeal proceedings.

2.4.3 Such possible conflicts and limitations do not exist in the present case. The claims presently on file differ from the claims not allowed in T 1676/11, for example, in that the claims refused under T 1676/11 included product claims whereas the requests presently on file contain only process claims, the subject-matter of said process claims differing substantially from the process claims decided upon in T 1676/11. Furthermore, within the generally applicable procedural rules, the appellant may at any time file new requests and rely on new arguments or evidence, which may or may not be related to the issues decided in T 1676/11, but which may lead to issues being decided differently than in T 1676/11.

2.4.4 In view of the differences which already exist and/or may arise in the future proceedings between the facts of T 1676/11 and those of the present proceedings, in contrast to T 1020/06, the appellant's argument that the subject-matter and the points of law to be discussed in the two cases were identical, cannot hold.

2.5 For the above reasons, the board in its present (alternate) composition does not recognise any sufficient basis for a suspicion of partiality under the terms of Article 24(3) EPC. The request to exclude the members of the original composition who had taken part in T 1676/11 is therefore refused and the appeal proceedings will continue with the original composition of the board.

This decision T 1889/13 (pdf) has European Case Law Identifier: ECLI:EP:BA:2017:T188913.20170314. The file wrapper can be found here. Photo obtained via Pixabay under CC0 1.0 license.

1 comment :

  1. Although it is not mentioned anywhere, in is interesting to note that, following T 1676/11, the then applicant filed a petition for review which has been considered not clearly inadmissible, but clearly not allowable.
    This might explain why the proprietor was so keen to exclude two members of the present Board.
    None of the circumstances expressed in T 1028/96 which legitimately would lead to the replacement of members apply here.
    Moreover some Boards are so understaffed, that replacement might not even be possible.