Pressure is continuing to build on the European Patent Office (EPO) over its treatment of staff and continued refusal to accept the results of an independent tribunal.
This week, Europe's largest trade union, the Union Syndicale Fédérale (USF) wrote to all 38 members of the EPO's Administrative Council noting its "great concern" at recent "extreme" EPO management actions that point to "fundamental flaws in the institutional setup of the EPO."
The letter [PDF] notes that the situation at the EPO – where staff have been hounded and fired and then been ignored when they have taken their cases to an independent tribunal and won – is now being actively discussed in other European institutions, including the Council of Europe.
"USF wishes to draw your attention to an important ongoing debate between organs of the Council of Europe," the letter notes. "The debates in Strasbourg focused on the issues of strengthening the legal system of international organizations and of the strict limitation of activities covered by their immunity of jurisdiction."
That is a reference to the fact that the EPO was recently and repeatedly castigated by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for its treatment of a former Boards of Appeals judge who had had the temerity to criticize EPO president Benoit Battistelli.
Having spent two years wrongly suspended, the ILO found that Patrick Corcoran has been wrongly dismissed and ordered his immediate reinstatement as well as an award of tens of thousands of euros in compensation and damages.
Among the many actions taken against Corcoran, including his immediate suspension, a halving of his salary while under investigation, and the seizure of his personal property, the most appalling came when journalists digging into the case were told by EPO staff that they had discovered "Nazi memorabilia" in Corcoran's office, in an effort to undermine him.
Despite the ILO ruling, however, the EPO has failed to carry out its demands and has so far refused to comment directly on the matter. Based on previous refusals to follow employment laws and independent tribunal decisions, it is expected that the EPO will eventually assert its immunity since it is an international organization.
That immunity was upheld last year in the Dutch Supreme Court after the EPO's staff union sued its own organization for breaking Holland's employment laws when the company installed spyware on computers in an effort to find out who was opposing reforms proposed by Battistelli – and for putting new limitations on their right to strike. It resulted in the union appealing to the European Court of Human Rights in an effort to impose some kind of control their own management.
The refusal to accept any authority and a related undermining of the EPO's own Boards of Appeal – which is supposed to be independent of EPO management – has even led to a complaint to Germany's constitutional court.
That complaint argues that the long-planned Unitary Patent Court (UPC) is not legal because the EPO – which approves patents – has insufficient governance mechanisms. It will be heard later this year.
The situation has grown so dire that the Council of Europe has started looking into making high-level changes to prevent international organizations from going awol – and the initial recommendations are referenced in USF's letter to the EPO's Administrative Council.
A report by the Council of Europe argues that members states "should bring about greater transparency of the work of international organizations and should ensure that these organizations introduce mechanisms to protect the rights of staff, along with procedures for lodging appeals" – a clear reference to the EPO.
It also complains about the "non-respect" shown to staff that has caused "the most acute problem."
Among its proposals are that European member states:
- Ensure that trade unions, staff committees and staff associations are given the right to protect their staff within international organizations
- Introduce procedures for lodging appeals against decisions of internal tribunals of international organizations
- Ensure that internal redress mechanisms at all levels are independent and impartial, and without undue interference
- Bring about greater transparency of the work of international organizations and ensure that information on procedures relating to employment disputes is accessible to their staff.
All of which is a very pointed criticism of the EPO.
The USF for its part highlights the proposals to the EPO's Administrative Council and states "we submit them for your consideration, trusting that you will know best how to provide adequate support to the momentum currently developing at the Council of Europe."
Or, in other words, we are watching and so are others. ®