The rights and obligations of an international organisation

27 January 2017

Last Friday the Supreme Court of the Netherlands conclusively endorsed the EPO’s immunity and the validity of its legal framework. It follows a case originally brought before the national courts of the Netherlands by one of the EPO`s trade unions, which asserted that it had no means to legally challenge recent reforms within the Office. Last week that claim was met with a resounding judgement from a national Supreme Court; the EPO does offer an effective form of legal redress to its employees and, in accordance with the principle of immunity, the national courts of the Netherlands have no jurisdiction in such matters.

That is a position that has also been supported by the government of the Netherlands, and we are grateful for their intervention. As with all governments, they understand that international organisations, such as the EPO, are built upon the principle of immunity.

Many of our users, and all those who rely on our services, may wonder why such a principle is required and why any Office – which should be concentrating its energies on delivering services – has to defend itself from sporadic legal challenges. The Office won a similar case in Germany recently and the EPO is not alone in facing such an issue. There are many well documented cases of challenges to the principle of immunity for international organisations.

Primarily, the principle of immunity ensures that the EPO can function independently in carrying out its mission in an impartial and neutral manner. It guarantees that we do not come under the influence of national interests or government policies of states. To put that in real terms, it means  our users can be confident that the EPO and its staff are working for the good of the European patent system and its inventors as a whole – never for a national interest. Only under this condition can we effectively fulfil our mission to support innovation right the way across Europe.

At the EPO, we know that the principle of immunity for international organisations is granted by member states. And, crucially, we also understand that this means we have an obligation to offer each and every one of our staff members effective means of legal redress on employment matters. Put simply, our employees must have access to an internal justice system that not only defines the right of employees, but also upholds them in an impartial manner.  According to the EPC, the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation is ruled to be the competent court for hearing labour disputes arising at the EPO, and individual employees and employee representatives have recourse to this court.

These findings echo the conclusions of another assessment of the EPO’s legal system. Last year, as part of a comprehensive stock-taking exercise, the EPO commissioned an independent study from leading consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers to assess the social conditions within our Office. It found that the EPO’s internal legal framework is in line with the European Social Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, and also compares favourably with other organisations and national laws. In addition the study underlined that the EPO’s internal dispute resolution system is in line with recognised best practice.

While the social study and court judgement validate the EPO’s legal framework – which has effectively governed our Office for nearly forty years – it also serves as a pertinent reminder: the rights of our employees and the EPO’s legal framework have to be safeguarded. In 2017, we’ll be examining ways to go yet further and to ensure that our system keeps on matching the best standards while also increasing its efficiency.

Benoît Battistelli


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