European Patent Office: Administrative Council gives the President a bollocking
The Administrative Council of the European Patent Office shows its displeasure with the President of the institution, but does not oblige him to reverse or review decisions.
Before the latest meeting of the Administrative Council (AC) of the European Patent Office (EPO), the AC’s chairman Jesper Kongstad had expressed annoyance at the way EPO President Benoît Battistelli dealt with the staff. He demanded that the recent dismissals and disciplinary measures against leaders of the EPO union SUEPO be subjected to independent review.
Such interventions are now off the table, following the conclusion of the two-day meeting of the AC. While the Administrative Council makes clear that it does not endorse Battistelli’s actions, it nevertheless does not intend to review his decisions. The AC asks the EPO President to ensure in future that his disciplinary measures are seen to be fair, and “to consider” submitting them to external assessors or mediation tribunals for review.
Battistelli to reach agreement with the unions
According to the AC resolution, the staff regulations should be amended, in particular concerning the internal Investigation Unit (IU). Battistelli based his controversial suspension of a patent judge and dismissal of union leaders on work carried out by the Investigation Unit, which had installed keyloggers in publicly-accessible computers at the EPO to track down a person allegedly defaming the Office.
Battistelli must also agree rules for cooperation with both EPO unions. At the beginning of March 2016, the President made a great song and dance of reaching such an agreement, while forgetting to mention that the union in question represented fewer than 100 of the more than 6000 EPO employees. SUEPO, with 3400 members, has so far refused to sign the document, which stipulates inter alia that the union must submit to the internal rules of the EPO – rules which can be unilaterally amended by the Office.
Criticism of efficiency measures and working conditions
A dispute has long been bubbling under at the EPO regarding Battistelli’s drive for efficiency gains, and the related working conditions. Patent examiners are critical of the project, because quickly-granted patents may not have been examined thoroughly, and may therefore be vulnerable to legal challenge. Since 2012, the patent examiners have been resisting plans to pay bonuses out of the Office’s revenue surplus on the grounds that this gives a false motivation for granting patents. The Office’s surplus at that time was 89 Million Euros; this had almost doubled by 2015.
According to EPO rules, employees who are ill must be at their home address from 10am to 12am and 2pm to 4pm every day of their sickness leave. The EPO reserves the right to check on the employee by sending a doctor to visit. An employee who is summoned to a meeting with the internal Investigation Unit is permitted neither to remain silent nor to be accompanied by a legal representative.
The European Patent Office has 38 member countries, including non-EU members such as Turkey and Switzerland. As a supranational organisation, it is not bound by any national law. Its employees therefore do not have the option of taking the EPO to a tribunal in the country where they work, or in their country of origin. In the first instance they must rely on internal procedures, and their only route for filing a formal complaint is at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva. The procedure at the ILO can last up to ten years, and the ILO complained in 2015 that it has been flooded with EPO complaints. (ck)