In its Judgment of 11 May 2017 in Archus and Gama, C-131/16, EU:C:2017:358, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued two sets of clarifications concerning the rules applicable to utilities procurement, which are however of general relevance, due to the identity of the relevant provisions under the general and the utilities procurement rules.
First, the ECJ explicitly extended the Manova and Slovensko line of case law to utilities procurement and in relation to the submission of samples, thus trying to clarify the boundaries of the possibility for contracting entities to request and/or accept clarifications or additional documentation (and samples) from tenderers while still complying with the principles of equal treatment, non-discrimination and the obligation of transparency. This first part of the Archus and Gama Judgment will thus be relevant to the interpretation and application of Art 76(4) of Directive 2014/25/EU (which is identical to Art 56(3) of Directive 2014/24/EU).
Second, the ECJ also provided clarification of the rules on standing to challenge procurement decisions under Art 1(3) of the Utilities Remedies Directive (which is identical to Art 1(3) of the general procurement Remedies Directive), and clarified that having or having had an interest in the award of the contract extends to situations where the remedy sought by the challenger cannot result in the award of such contract, but is likely to concern the initiation of a new award procedure for the award of a (different) contract with the same subject matter.
Extension of Manova to the submission of samples
In the case at hand, tenderers were required to submit samples of micro-filmed material together with their tenders. The "quality of the microfilm sample was to be assessed according to the ‘satisfies/does not satisfy’ rule, it being stipulated that if the sample was not satisfactory the offer was to be rejected" (para 14). After submission of their tender and during the evaluation phase, joint tenderers Archus and Gama sent the contracting authority a request for a correction of their tender, arguing that "there had been an inadvertent mistake [... and] seeking to substitute a new microfilm sample for that annexed to their tender, which did not conform to the tender specifications" (para 17). The contracting authority accepted the substitution of the microfilm but requested further clarification from the tenderers because it considered that "they had not provided information on the method for microfilming the sample and the [relevant] technical parameters" (para 18). The contracting authority eventually rejected the tender as non-compliant.
In a rather convoluted drafting influenced by the question referred by the domestic court, the ECJ established that the legal issue arising from these circumstances required it to determine "whether the principle of equal treatment ... must be interpreted as precluding ... a contracting authority from inviting tenderers to provide the required declarations or documents which were not supplied by them within the prescribed period for the submission of tenders or to correct those declarations or documents in case of errors, without that contracting authority also being required to point out to those tenderers that they are prohibited from altering the content of the tenders submitted" (para 24). However, there are two factual elements that seems missing here: first, the fact that the initiative for the correction initiated from the tenderers; and, second, the fact that the correction concerned a sample rather than a declaration or document, and therefore it was not information-based. Disappointingly, none of these important details feature with much prominence in the ECJ's analysis (despite para 35 referring to the fact that "it was [the] tenderers who sent the contracting authority a request for their tender to be corrected").
Indeed, in this part of the Judgment (paras 29-33), the ECJ provides a summary of the Manova and Slovensko line of case law and, in simplified terms, reiterates that "the principle of equal treatment does not preclude the correction or amplification of details of a tender, where it is clear that they require clarification or where it is a question of the correction of obvious clerical errors, subject, however, to the fulfilment of certain requirements" (para 29, emphasis added), such as:
- a request for clarification of a tender cannot be made until after the contracting authority has looked at all the tenders and must, as a general rule, be sent in an equivalent manner to all undertakings which are in the same situation and must relate to all sections of the tender which require clarification (para 30)
- that request may not lead to the submission by a tenderer of what would appear in reality to be a new tender (para 31)
- as a general rule, when exercising its discretion as regards the right to ask a tenderer to clarify its tender, the contracting authority must treat tenderers equally and fairly, in such a way that a request for clarification does not appear unduly to have favoured or disadvantaged the tenderer or tenderers to which the request was addressed, once the procedure for selection of tenders has been completed and in the light of its outcome (para 32)
The ECJ also reiterated that "a request for clarification cannot, however, make up for the lack of a document or information whose production was required by the contract documents, the contracting authority being required to comply strictly with the criteria which it has itself laid down" (para 33, emphasis added).
When trying to apply these general principles to the situation at hand, the ECJ established that "a request sent by the contracting authority to a tenderer to supply the declarations and documents required cannot, in principle, have any other aim than the clarification of the tender or the correction of an obvious error vitiating the tender. It cannot, therefore, permit a tenderer generally to supply declarations and documents which were required to be sent in accordance with the tender specification and which were not sent within the time limit for tenders to be submitted. Nor can it ... result in the presentation by a tenderer of documents containing corrections where in reality they constitute a new tender" (para 36); ultimately leaving it to the "referring court to determine whether ... the substitution made by Archus and Gama remained within the limits of the correction of an obvious error vitiating its tender" (para 38, emphasis added).
I find this reasoning of limited assistance in assessing the legal issue at hand. It would seem to me that the fact that the tenderers unilaterally sought to modify their tender in relation with a sample of the output of the services they were offering should have been given more weight (as this did not result from the observation of an obvious shortcoming or mistake by the contracting authority), and the difficulties in establishing objectively what is obviously wrong with a sample probably should have been enough relevance to provide a more conclusive answer against the acceptability of the substitution of samples.
From that perspective, confronted with a defective sample, the contracting authority could simply observe a deviation from the tender requirements, but it could hardly establish whether the defect resulted from an obvious mistake (ie whether the tenderer mistakenly submitted the wrong sample, as they claimed), or establish a way of clarifying the reasons for the defectiveness of the sample without allowing for the submission of a sample equivalent to the submission of a different tender. Differently from documents and declarations, or from the inclusion of insufficient details or mistakes in an offer, a sample is meant to evidence the product to be supplied or to result from the provision of the services. It is difficult to imagine circumstances under which a contracting authority could meet the strictures of the Manova-Slovensko case law while prompting the tenderer to submit an alternative sample. Moreover, under the rules applicable to the tender, it seems clear that a defective sample should trigger rejection of the tender, without any further analysis, which the ECJ does not seem to give much relevance to either.
Overall, I think that there is enough to justify the rejection of the possibility to substitute samples (in particular at the initiative of the tenderers) within the confines of the Manova-Slovensko test. However, I find this part of the Archus and Gama Judgment slightly confusing due to its open ended wording and, more importantly, to the practical difficulties in applying a test originally meant to correct missing or obviously erroneous information in documents to issues concerning the manifestation of technical aspects in a sample.
On this occasion, I tend to think that the ECJ has possibly pushed too far in trying to create procedural flexibility. While the absence of a sample could have allowed for the contracting authority to request the submission of one (because the problem with the tender would have been obvious), an attempt by the tenderers to substitute a previously submitted sample raises a whole host of other issues. In cases such as this, it may be preferable to have a clear cut rule against the possibility to substitute the sample. Moreover, given that the tender documents had explicitly indicated that rejection of the sample would also imply the rejection of the offer, it is difficult to understand why the ECJ has deviated from its previous approach to imposing compliance with the specific rules created in the tender documentation by the contracting authority itself (not that I find it always or generally convincing (see eg here), but a deviation from that approach seems to create inconsistency). Thus, I do not think this part of the Archus and Gama Judgment deserves a positive assessment.
Clarification of the scope of active standing under the remedies directive
In relation to a rather distinct aspect of the same case, the ECJ was also asked to clarify "whether Article 1(3) of [the Utilities Remedies Directive] must be interpreted as meaning that the concept of ‘a particular contract’ ... refers to a specific public procurement procedure or the actual subject matter of the contract which is to be awarded following a public procurement procedure, in a situation where only two tenders have been submitted and where the tenderer whose tender has been rejected may be regarded as having an interest in seeking the rejection of the tender of the other tenderer and, as a result, the initiation of a new public procurement procedure" (para 47).
Maybe in simpler words, the question concerned whether the EU rules grant legal standing to challenge a procurement decision to disappointed tenderers that are found to be properly excluded and, rather than seeking a remedy concerning the award of the contract as part of the procedure where the dispute arose (which would not be possible), may rather be interested in the cancellation of that procedure and the start of a fresh tender. In the end, the clarification concerned the tenability under EU law of a position that interpreted that "an economic operator who has submitted a tender in a public procurement procedure does not, where his tender is rejected, have an interest in bringing proceedings against the decision awarding the public contract" (para 48).
The answer provided by the ECJ is narrowly tailored to the specific circumstances of the case, as it established that "in a situation ... in which ... two tenders have been submitted and the contracting authority has adopted two simultaneous decisions rejecting the offer of one tenderer and awarding the contract to the other, the unsuccessful tenderer who brings an action against those two decisions must be able to request the exclusion of the tender of the successful tenderer, so that the concept of ‘a particular contract’ within the meaning of Article 1(3) of [the Utilities Remedies Directive] may, where appropriate, apply to the possible initiation of a new public procurement procedure" (para 59).
This interpretation seems generally uncontroversial and follows the same path of extension of the justiciability of exclusion and qualitative selection grounds as the recent Marina del Mediterráneo Judgment (see here). However, it also seems very limited to circumstances that may be difficult to meet in practice in a large number of procedures, such as the fact that only two tenderers participated in the procedure, or that the decisions to reject one tender and award the contract to the other were adopted simultaneously. In that regard, the ECJ could have been slightly bolder and simply clarified that retaining the possibility of being awarded a contract under the same (administrative) procedure is not a pre-requisite for the recognition of active standing to challenge procurement procedures under the EU rules. I would have preferred this broader approach, which could have saved future preliminary references on the basis of cases with minor variations of the underlying factual scenario.