AG delineates boundaries of administrative proportionality assessments and intensity of judicial review requirements under EU public procurement law (C-171/15)

In his Opinion of 30 June 2016 in Connexxion Taxi Services, C-171/15, EU:C:2016:506, Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona has addressed two important issues concerning the judicial review of a decision not to exclude an economic operator that had potentially incurred in serious professional misconduct despite the tender documentation indicating that 'A tender to which a ground for exclusion applies shall be set aside and shall not be eligible for further (substantive) assessment'.

The preliminary reference sent to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) mainly raises two issues: firstly, whether it was possible for the contracting authority to apply a proportionality assessment before proceeding to exclude the economic operator--or, in the circumstances of the case, in order to decide not to exclude. And, secondly, whether EU law precluded national courts from solely engaging in ‘marginal’ review as to whether the contracting authority could reasonably have come to the decision not to exclude a tenderer notwithstanding the fact that that it was guilty of grave professional misconduct, rather than carrying out an ‘unrestricted’ judicial review of the assessment conducted on the basis of the principle of proportionality. Both are interesting issues. Both were to be decided under the 2004 EU public procurement rules, but both are clearly relevant under the revised 2014 package.

Again on the interaction between general (administrative) law and tender documentation

The first issue fundamentally stems from the fact that applicable Dutch law and its interpretative guidance foresee that 'the assessment of whether a tenderer must actually be excluded, having regard to the general principles of Directive 2004/18, must always be proportional and be carried out in a non-discriminatory manner' (Opinion in C-171/15, para 10). In the Connexxion Taxi Services case, the contracting authority engaged in such proportionality assessment despite having published tender documentation that seemed to create an automatic obligation to exclude by stating that: 'A tender to which a ground for exclusion applies shall be set aside and shall not be eligible for further (substantive) assessment'. As a result of the proportionality analysis, it decided not to exclude a tenderer competing with Connexxion , according to which 'the contracting authority [was] not in a position to make an assessment of proportionality having found that the tenderer [had] been guilty of grave professional misconduct. That assessment [had] already been carried out by inclusion of the misconduct as a ground for exclusion in the descriptive document. Given the wording of the latter, it would be contrary to the principles of public access, transparency and equality in matters of administrative procurement for the contracting authority to have the power to assess the proportionality of the ground for exclusion.' (para 30). 

Somehow, this raises a question that can be seen as the mirror image of the controversy underlying the recent Pizzo Judgment (C-27/15, EU:C:2016:404, see comments here). In Pizzo, the contracting authority sought to rely on generally applicable administrative law rules to exclude economic operators. The CJEU ruled against that possibility and created a middle-path whereby a contracting authority seeking to engage in that exclusion would need to provide the tenderer an opportunity to regularise its position and comply with that general obligation within a period of time set by the contracting authority. Conversely, in Connexxion Taxi Services, the CJEU is expected to rule on whether reliance on generally applicable administrative law rules can be used to deactivate specific exclusion choices established in the tender documentation. AG Campos submits that the Court should answer in the affirmative and that this is not contrary to Pizzo. I agree.

In his Opinion, AG Campos stresses that

51. The requirement included in paragraph 3.1 of the descriptive document (‘a tender to which a ground for exclusion applies must be set aside’), precisely because of its quasi-regulatory nature, must, in my view, be read in the light of the interpretative rules applicable to all subordinate legal rules, which cannot disregard the more general rules which govern them. If the [applicable rule] provides that exclusion on the ground of grave professional misconduct requires that the contracting authority examine each particular case ‘on the basis of the nature and size of the public contract, the type and scope of the misconduct and the measures taken in the meantime by the undertaking’, the fact that the descriptive document is silent as to that necessary and individual application of the principle of proportionality cannot result in that principle being disregarded.
52. That approach is confirmed from the perspective of EU law. The case-law of the Court on the optional grounds for exclusion, rejecting their automatic application, confirms the need for that consistent interpretation. It follows from the judgment in Forposta and ABC Direct Contact that automatic exclusion (of a tenderer guilty of grave misconduct) could go beyond the discretion conferred on Member States by Article 45(2) of Directive 2004/18 (Opinion in C-171/15, paras 51-52, references omitted and emphasis added).

In my view, it must be right that contracting authorities are always under a general obligation of acting in a proportionate manner and, consequently, each decision they adopt needs to be proportionate under the circumstances and pro-competitive, and ultimately 'a contracting authority must retain the power to assess, on a case-by-case basis, the gravity of the circumstances that would lead to exclusion of the tenderer. And it is submitted that it must also balance them against the effects that such exclusion would have on competition' [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 293, references omitted]. Thus, the final consideration of AG Campos seems entirely correct when he stresses that

In the invitation to tender at issue, the conditions and the selection procedure, the same for all applicants, were not modified. The contracting authority checked that their tenders satisfied the criteria applicable to the contract and applied no ground for exclusion which was not provided for in the descriptive document. The fact that, in order to assess one of those grounds for exclusion expressly included in that document it applied the criterion of proportionality, which was not expressly referred to in the descriptive document but is required by the general ... rules on public procurement (as well as by the case-law of the Court), is, in my view, consistent with the principle of equal treatment and its corollary, the obligation to act transparently (Opinion in C-171/15, para 58, references omitted and emphasis added).

The more difficult issue of the standard of (intensity) of judicial review

The second question fundamentally focuses on the fact that, given the contracting authority's engagement in a proportionality analysis, a mere 'marginal' review of the decision in order to ascertain whether the contracting authority could reasonably have come to the decision not to exclude a tenderer could fall short of meeting the requirements of the Remedies Directive.

After some interesting remarks on the gradual increase in the requirements of intensity of judicial review in areas of EU substantive law where there has been a harmonisation of remedies--which, consequently, reduce the scope of limitations derived from the general principle of procedural autonomy--AG Campos enounces what he considers should be covered by a mechanism of review compliant with the Remedies Directive. In his view,

the judicial review imposed by Directive 89/665 requires something more [than a mere 'marginal' review, or solely assessing whether or not the contested decision was arbitrary] to deserve that name. The assessment by the court cannot end with a mere assessment of the ‘reasonableness’ of the contested decisions, especially as those decisions must comply with detailed rules covering formal and substantive matters. A court hearing an application in this field will have to assess whether the disputed award observed the rules of the invitation to tender and whether the successful tenderer’s application can withstand the critical analysis which its competitors present in the action. That assessment will require, in many cases, verification of the decisive facts (which the administration may have determined incorrectly), as well as evidence concerning the relative merits of the various applications. It will also involve gauging whether the administrative action is duly reasoned and whether it is in line or at variance with the objectives which underlie it (in other words, whether there is evidence of misuse of powers) and the other legal provisions which govern it. Examination of all that evidence goes beyond, I repeat, a mere assessment of the ‘reasonableness’ of the contested measure and involves matters of fact and law of a more ‘technical’ and usually more complex nature, which every court having jurisdiction to review administrative acts usually carries out (Opinion in C-171/15, para 73, emphasis added). 

This leads him to suggest to the Court to declare that 

Articles 1 and 2 of Council Directive 89/665/EEC of 21 December 1989 on the coordination of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions relating to the application of review procedures to the award of public supply and public works contracts are not compatible with legislation, or the usual practice, of a Member State which limits the scope of the review procedures to a review merely of the reasonableness of the decisions of contracting authorities (Opinion in C-171/15, para 85, emphasis added).

On principle, this seems unobjectionable and, as AG Campos suggests, it would also be compatible with the CJEU decision in Croce Amica One Italia (C-440/13, EU:C:2014:2435, see comment here), where it effectively clarified that

Article 1(1) of Directive 89/665 requires the decision of the contracting authority withdrawing the invitation to tender for a public contract to be open to a review procedure, and to be capable of being annulled, where appropriate, on the ground that it has infringed EU law on public contracts or national rules transposing that law (para 34).

The question is whether (all) the specific details of the full review advanced by AG Campos in para 73 of his Opinion are necessary in order to allow the review body or court to assess compatibility of procurement decisions with EU law and domestic transposing measures. As I read his Opinion, he advocates for three main components: (1) a review of the decisive facts, (2) a review of the relative merits of the offers, (3) a review of the reasons given by the contracting authority for its choices and the soundness of those reasons (or, in his own words, to check that there has been no misuse of powers). In my view, elements (1) and (3) are relatively uncontroversial. However, element (2) is very likely to create difficulties if the review body or court is expected (or empowered) to second guess the technical evaluation of the tenderers and their tenders. I think that the risk of allowing review courts and bodies to substitute the contracting authority's discretion for their own would be going a step too far. Thus, while the minimum requirements of the review procedures mandated by the Remedies Directive clearly seem to indicate the need to go beyond a mere assessment of arbitrariness and engage in a full review of legality, it also seems clear to me that the review cannot go as far as to allow for a second-guessing of the contracting authority's discretion. 

This is clearly an area where drawing bright lines is complicated or, as AG Fennelly put it writing extra judicially,

There remains a somewhat imprecise formulation of the standard of substantive review. Respect, to the extent appropriate, is paid to the discretion of the awarding authority. Nonetheless, the cases show that the intensity of scrutiny is greater than in traditional cases, where judges have been very slow to substitute their own evaluation of the facts for that of the decision-maker. In tendering, it is natural, other things being equal, to expect the contract to be awarded to the lowest price. Even where the criterion adopted is the “most economically advantageous,” there will usually be an identifiable lowest price. It will normally be incumbent on the authority to claim that other things are not equal and to show why. Thus, the substantial justification for the decision shades into the adequacy of the reasons, even if sufficiency of reasons is usually treated as a separate ground of judicial review (emphasis added). 

It may well be that this discussion is more about the semantics than substance of how to describe the standard for judicial review. Be it as it may, however, it will be interesting to await for the final decision of the Court in the Connexxion Taxi Services case, which hopefully will bring some clarity on the specific requirements of intensity of judicial review that stem from the Remedies Directive.