CJEU greenlights ‘remedying procedural short-comings in return for (proportionate) payment’ (C-523/16 & C-536/16)

In its Judgment of 28 February 2018 in MA.T.I. SUD, C-523/16, EU:C:2018:135, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) accepted the compatibility with EU public procurement law (2004 version) in principle of domestic rules allowing for the 'remedying of procedural shortcomings in return for payment', whereby a contracting authority can invite any tenderer whose tender is vitiated by serious irregularities to rectify that tender, subject to the payment of a financial penalty--provided that the amount of that penalty is proportionate.

However, given previous case law excluding the possibility to remedy serious shortcomings in submitted tenders, the CJEU has stressed that such 'remedial mechanism in return for payment' is subject to the limitation that, despite the existence of such financial penalty, the contracting authority cannot require a tenderer to remedy the lack of a document which, according to the express provisions in the contract documentation, must result in the exclusion of that tenderer, or to eliminate irregularities such that any corrections or changes would amount to a new tender (para 65).

It is important to note, though, that despite establishing this position in principle, the CJEU also provided extremely clear indications that, in its view, there is a need to subject the assessment of the adequacy of the correction of the tenders to a strict assessment to make sure that they do not imply a new tender or the circumvention of the tender documentation (or, in other words, to make sure that the correction is not really of a serious irregularity, but rather a minor one), and that the penalties threatened in the Italian domestic cases that generated the preliminary reference cannot be considered proportionate (paras 62 & 64).

This anticipated analysis of incompatibility in concreto despite compatibility in abstracto begs the question whether the position in principle taken by the CJEU--ie the acceptaibility of non-serious modifications subject to proportionate financial penalties--is an adequate default rule, or whether a different default rule would be preferable--ie the acceptability of non-serious modifications without penalty.

In my view, and largely for the same reasons given in criticising the Opinion of AG Campos Sanchez-Bordona that the CJEU has now followed (see here, where they are developed in detail), in tolerating the imposition of financial penalties as a condition for the remediation of minor procedural defects, the MA.T.I. SUD Judgment sets the wrong default rule and is undesirable for its potential anti-SME effects, as well as due to the potential blurring of the narrow space that actually exists for the correction of serious irregularities under the Manova-Slovensko-Archus and Gama case law (see here, here and here). In adopting a seemingly more flexible approach in principle, in MA.T.I. SUD the CJEU may be creating more confusion than providing clarity, solely with the aim of maintaining a questionable space for domestic procedural administrative discretion. On balance, I would have thought it preferable for the CJEU to indicate more clearly and simply that serious irregularities cannot be corrected (with or without financial penalty), and that the correction of minor irregularities needs to be always accepted without sanction.

In MA.T.I. SUD, the CJEU assessed the compatibility with Art 51 of Directive 2004/18/EC of an Italian provision that enabled tenderers for public contracts to remedy any irregularities in their tenders, but at the same time imposed on them a financial penalty proportional to the value of the contract--of between 0.1% and 1% of the value of the contract, with a maximum ceiling of €50,000. The amount of the penalty was to be set in advance by the contracting authority and guaranteed by a provisional security (or bid bond), and could not be adjusted according to the gravity of the irregularity that it remedied. The maximum penalty was later reduced to €5,000, and eventually suppressed. This reduces the immediate impact of the MA.T.I. SUD Judgment. However, this CJEU ruling will be relevant beyond the specific context of Italian procurement rules, not only in relation with the now phased out transposition of Art 51 of Directive 2004/18, but also with Art 59 of Directive 2014/24/EU (which was not applicable ratione temporis). Both provisions foresee that contracting authorities can seek clarifications from tenderers under specified conditions.

There are some passages of the Judgment I consider relevant:

... when they implement the possibility provided for in Article 51 of Directive 2004/18 [whereby the contracting authority may invite economic operators to supplement or clarify the certificates and documents submitted to it], the Member States must ensure that they do not jeopardise the attainment of the objectives pursued by that directive or undermine the effectiveness of its provisions and other relevant provisions and principles of EU law, particularly the principles of equal treatment and non-discrimination, transparency and proportionality ...

It must also be borne in mind that Article 51 of Directive 2004/18 cannot be interpreted as allowing the contracting authority to accept any rectification of omissions which, as expressly provided for in the contract documentation, had to lead to the exclusion of the tenderer ...

... a request for clarification cannot 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 ...

In addition, such a request may not lead to the submission by a tenderer of what would appear in reality to be a new tender

... the very concept of substantial irregularity ... does not appear to be compatible with Article 51 of Directive 2004/18 or with the requirements to which the clarification of a tender in the context of a public contract falling within the scope of Directive 2004/17 is subject, according to the case-law of the Court ...

It follows that the mechanism of assistance in compiling the documentation [under dispute] ... is not applicable if the tender submitted by a tenderer cannot be rectified or clarified within the meaning of the case-law referred ... above, and that, consequently, no penalty can be imposed on the tenderers in such a case (C-523/16, paras 48-49, 51-52 & 55-56 references omitted and emphasis added).

In my view, this reasoning of the CJEU reflects the state of the law and a desirable normative position. It would have allowed the CJEU to simply declare the Italian system incompatible due to the excess that a correction of serious irregularities would imply in comparison with the boundaries on tender modification derived from Manova-Slovensko-Archus and Gama. And the CJEU could have done that without entering into a discussion of whether proportionate penalties for non-substantial modifications are acceptable. On this point, it should be stressed that contested Italian rule also foresaw that '[i]n the case of non-substantial irregularities, that is, any non-essential absence or incompleteness of declarations, the contracting authority shall not require the remedying thereof or impose any penalty' (AGO, C-523/16, para 5). Therefore, in the case at hand, the narrow regulatory space left by the CJEU for the imposition of sanctions would not be occupied by the Italian rules, as the Italian legislator saw no need to sanction any such minor tender corrections.

On the whole, then, the MA.T.I. SUD Judgment seems to unnecessarily create a default rule that can be problematic in the interpretation and operationalisation of the rules in Arts 56 and 59 of Dir 2014/24. This stems from the fact that the CJEU has endorsed the underlying principle that 'the imposition of a financial penalty is indeed an appropriate means of achieving the legitimate objectives pursued by the Member State related to the need to place responsibility on the tenderers in submitting their tenders and to offset the financial burden that any regularisation represents for the contracting authority' (para 63). In my view, this runs contrary to the pro-competitive and pro-SME orientation of the 2014 Public Procurement Package. It also reflects a general understanding of public procurement law not as a mode of governance aimed at ensuring best value for money in the expenditure of public funds, but rather a set of fully justiciable rules aimed at discharging the cost and risk of the procurement function on the economic operators, which is then of course putting pressure at the other end of the spectrum via claims for damages where (complex) justiciable rules are not complied with absolutely. In my view, this creates an unrealistic framework for the carrying out of procurement efforts, and more scope for collaborative approaches within the boundaries of the requirements for equal treatment and competition would be superior.

Therefore, I can only hope that, in the future and with a right case, the CJEU will be able to further clarify its position--or, rectius, to reverse position and rule out the possibility of intra-tender sanctions for minor modifications. This is a normative point and, as I said before, the same way I argue against charging potentially interested tenderers for access to the tender documentation, I also take the normative position that imposing fines for the remediation of documentation shortcomings is undesirable, which leads me to propose their eradication de lege ferenda (by analogy, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 280-281).