Recording of seminar on procurement damages post-Fosen Linjen available

The Bergen Center for Competition Law & Economics (BECCLE) has now published the recording of the excellent seminar "Damages for breach of Public Procurement Law – Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS and its implications" held on 1 March--in which I had the pleasure and honour to participate. The recording includes four excellent and very lively presentations (modesty apart): 

  • Dag Sørlie Lund – “The Norwegian law and practice on damages arising from public procurement breaches before Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS, and the challenges it entails.”
  • Kirsi-Maria Halonen – “A comparative approach to damages: The Finnish and Swedish practice on damages arising from public procurement breaches.”
  • Albert Sánchez Graells – “Approaches to the ‘seriousness’ of the breach: The EFTA Court vs the UK Supreme Court.”
  • Halvard Haukeland Fredriksen – “Norway after the Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS case: What is to be expected and what are its repercussions – here and elsewhere.”

Given that the case is headed for the Norwegian Supreme Court after the Frostating Court of Appeal decided not to follow the EFTA Court's Opinion, the discussion we had in the seminar may be of particular interest. My arguments are further developed in this paper.

More discussion of damages for breach of EU procurement rules

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Dr Ignacio Herrera Anchistegui has organised a greatly interesting BECCLE seminar on "Damages for breach of Public Procurement Law – Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS and its implications". It will take place this Thursday 1 March 2018 in Bergen. I have the pleasure and honour of presenting my views on the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen Judgment and to provide a comparative view with the UK Supreme Court's decision in Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. These are issues I had already addressed in the blog (see here and here) and, in trying to provide a more comprehensive critique of the case at the seminar, I have now tried to restructure my initial ideas and develop them in some more detail in a new SSRN working paper.

I hope the discussion will provide plenty additional ideas and food for thought, and I will try to improve the paper after the BECCLE seminar in view of that. Any additional comments or feedback on how to get it ready for publication would also be most welcome: a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk. Thank you for reading.

The abstract is as follows:

This paper offers some reflections on the position advanced by the EFTA Court that a simple breach of EU public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the contracting authority's liability in damages (Fosen-Linjen). I argue that this position is flawed because it deviates from previous case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (Spijker), and because it is based on interpretive errors and internal contradictions in the EFTA Court's reasoning. In criticising the EFTA Court's Judgment from the perspective of the harmonisation of EU law, I rely on the better view of the UK Supreme Court. The latter held that the liability of a contracting authority for the breach of EU public procurement rules under the remedies directive is assimilated to that of the State under the general EU law doctrine of State liability and thus requires a sufficiently serious breach (Nuclear Decommissioning Authority). My reflections are based on the need to keep procurement damages litigation constrained to its main function and limited to justified cases. I use this normative position to argue against the expansion of private enforcement of EU public procurement law as a correction of the shortcomings in its public enforcement.

The full reference of the paper is: A Sanchez-Graells, 'You Can't Be Serious: Critical Reflections on the Liability Threshold for Damages Claims for Breach of EU Public Procurement Law' (February 24, 2018). Presented at the BECCLE seminar on 'Public Procurement and Damages,' University of Bergen, 1 March 2018. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3129430.

Some additional thoughts on the interaction between procurement remedies and the principle of State liability—re Fosen-Linjen (E-16/16) and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority ([2017] UKSC 34)

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After I published some comments on the EFTA Court’s Judgment in Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS (E-16/16, see here) some three weeks ago, I have had some interesting exchanges and discussions with some academic colleagues (Dr K-M Halonen, Dr R Vornicu, Dr P Bogdanowicz, Prof R Caranta, Dr A Georgopoulos, Dr Herrera Anchustegui and Aris Christidis) and with policy-makers and practitioners (which mostly wish to remain anonymous). I am grateful to all of them for forcing me to think harder about some of the issues that derive from the Fosen-Linjen case and, in particular, for their repeated invitations to consider it by comparison to the Judgment of the UK Supreme Court in Nuclear Decommissioning Authority v EnergySolutions EU Ltd (now ATK Energy Ltd) [2017] UKSC 34 (the ‘NDA’ judgment; for my views on an interim decision at the start of the litigation, see here).

Indeed, comparing those cases is interesting, for the Fosen-Linjen and NDA judgments offer diametrically opposed views of the interaction between the use of damages as a procurement remedy and the principle of State liability for breach of EU law, in particular concerning the threshold for liability under the so-called second Francovich condition—ie whether liability arises from a ‘sufficiently serious breach’ of EU public procurement law, or from any (unqualified) infringement of the rules.

In this post, (1) I compare the approach to the procurement remedies-State liability interaction in both judgments, to then offer some brief reflections on (2) the implications of minimum harmonization of this subject-matter through the Remedies Directive (ie, Dir 89/665/EEC, as amended by Dir 2007/66/EC; see its consolidated version), (3) the possibility to reform the Remedies Directive so as to achieve maximum harmonization, and (4) the potential implications of a damages-based procurement enforcement strategy in the context of the emergence of EU tort law. This post is meant, more than anything, as an invitation for further discussion.

(1) Opposing approaches to the procurement remedies-State liability interaction

One of the contended issues in academic, and now also judicial, debate around public procurement remedies is the relationship between, on the one hand, the liability in damages derived from the Remedies Directive (art 2(1)(c), requiring a power for review bodies or courts to ‘award damages to persons harmed by an infringement’ of relevant EU public procurement rules) and, on the other, the liability derived from the general principle of State liability for breaches of EU law (following Francovich and Others, C‑6/90 and C‑9/90, EU:C:1991:428, and Brasserie du Pêcheur and Factortame, C‑46/93 and C‑48/93, EU:C:1996:79).

This is an issue that the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) explicitly addressed in Combinatie Spijker Infrabouw-De Jonge Konstruktie and Others, C-568/08, EU:C:2010:751 ('Spijker'), when it stated that Art 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive

gives concrete expression to the principle of State liability for loss and damage caused to individuals as a result of breaches of EU law for which the State can be held responsible …

… as regards state liability for damage caused to individuals by infringements of EU law for which the state may be held responsible, the individuals harmed have a right to redress where the rule of EU law which has been infringed is intended to confer rights on them, the breach of that rule is sufficiently serious, and there is a direct causal link between the breach and the loss or damage sustained by the individuals. In the absence of any provision of EU law in that area, it is for the internal legal order of each member state, once those conditions have been complied with, to determine the criteria on the basis of which the damage arising from an infringement of EU law on the award of public contracts must be determined and estimated, provided the principles of equivalence and effectiveness are complied with (Spijker, paras 87 and 92, emphases added).

However, maybe surprisingly, Spijker is not (yet) universally seen as having settled the issue of the interaction between the actions for damages under the Remedies Directive and the Francovich doctrine.

As mentioned above, the main point of contention rests on what could be seen as a lex specialis understanding of the interaction between the two regulatory frameworks (which could formally match a literal reading of para 87 of Spijker, but is more difficult to square with its para 92)—ie a view that the general condition for there to be a ‘sufficiently serious breach’ of EU law under Francovich is relaxed by the Remedies Directive by solely mentioning the need for an (unqualified) infringement as sufficient ground for a damages claim. This is specifically a point where the UK Supreme Court and the EFTA Court have taken opposing views in their recent judgments.

The UK Supreme Court's approach

Indeed, in its NDA Judgment (as per Lord Mance, with Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale, Lord Sumption and Lord Carnwath agreeing), the UK Supreme Court followed what I think is the correct reading of Spijker and established that

para 87 [of Spijker] proceeds by making clear that the liability of an awarding authority is to be assessed by reference to the Francovich conditions. Subject to these conditions being met, paras 88 to 90 go on to make clear that the criteria for damages are to be determined and estimated by national law, with the further caveat that the general principles of equivalence and effectiveness must also be met (para 91). Finally, para 92 summarises what has gone before, repeating the need to satisfy the Francovich conditions (NDA, per Lord Mance, at [23]).

More importantly, the UK Supreme Court considered that

… there is … very clear authority of the Court of Justice confirming that the liability of a contracting authority under the Remedies Directive for the breach of the [public procurement rules] is assimilated to that of the state or of a public body for which the state is responsible. It is in particular only required to exist where the minimum Francovich conditions are met, although it is open to States in their domestic law to introduce wider liability free of those conditions (NDA, per Lord Mance, at [25], emphasis added).

Therefore, the UK Supreme Court takes the clear view that the existence of grounds for an EU damages action based on the Remedies Directive requires the existence of a ‘sufficiently serious breach’ of EU public procurement law. At the same time, it takes no issue with the possibility for more generous domestic grounds for actions for damages (although it eventually decided that this was not the case in relation to the Public Contract Regulations 2006; see NDA, per Lord Mance at [37], with which I also agree).

The EFTA Court's approach

Conversely, in its Fosen-Linjen Judgment, and despite the fact that similar arguments on the interpretation of Spijker were made before it (in particular by the Norwegian Government), the EFTA Court considered that

Article 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive … precludes national legislation which makes the right to damages for an infringement of public procurement law by a contracting authority conditional on that infringement being culpable … The same must apply where there exists a general exclusion or a limitation of the remedy of damages to only specific cases. This would be the case, for example, if only breaches of a certain gravity would be considered sufficient to trigger the contracting authority’s liability, whereas minor breaches would allow the contracting authority to incur no liability

A requirement that only a breach of a certain gravity may give rise to damages could also run contrary to the objective of creating equal conditions for the remedies available in the context of public procurement. Depending on the circumstances, a breach of the same provision of EEA public procurement could lead to liability in one EEA State while not giving rise to damages in another EEA State. In such circumstances, economic operators would encounter substantial difficulties in assessing the potential liability of contracting authorities in different EEA States’ (Fosen-Linjen, paras 77 and 78, emphases added).

This led it to reach the view that

A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability of the contracting authority to compensate the person harmed for the damage incurred, pursuant to Article 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive, provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met including, in particular, the existence of a causal link (Fosen-Linjen, para 82, emphasis added).

I already discussed (here) the reasons why I think the EFTA Court’s Judgment does not accord with the ECJ’s case law (notably in Spijker) and why I hope the ECJ will explicitly correct this situation. In the remainder of this post, I briefly discuss the themes of minimum and maximum harmonisation of procurement remedies that emerge from a comparison of the approaches adopted by the UK Supreme Court and by the EFTA Court.

(2) Minimum harmonization through the Remedies Directive

The UK Supreme Court’s approach is implicitly based on a conceptualisation of the Remedies Directive as a minimum harmonization instrument, which sets the basic elements of the (effective and equivalent) remedies that Member States must regulate for, in accordance with the peculiarities of their own domestic systems. I think that this characterisation of the Remedies Directive is uncontroversial (see eg the recent report by the European Commission on its implementation at Member State level, at 4). Following the logic of minimum harmonization, the UK Supreme Court clearly has no problem with the existence of two potential tiers of remedies: a lower or more basic EU tier (subject eg to a requirement of ‘sufficiently serious breach’), and a higher or more protective domestic tier (subject eg to ‘any infringement’), which may or may not exist depending on the policy orientation of each EU/EEA State.

This approach has both the advantage of being in accordance with the current state of the law as interpreted by the ECJ (as above), and of not imposing—as a matter of legal compliance, rather than policy preference—an absolute harmonisation of public procurement remedies (at least as the threshold of liability for damages is concerned).

However, this approach is not without some practical difficulties, as there is a thick mist of uncertainty concerning what is a sufficiently serious breach of procurement rules (but also of what rules in the EU directives are ‘intended to confer rights’ on the tenderers—ie the first Francovich condition, which has been so far largely untested), and the existing ECJ case law on the interpretation of substantive EU procurement rules would require significant reconceptualisation in order to provide clarity in this respect. The existence of the preliminary reference mechanism of Art 267 TFEU can alleviate this legal uncertainty (in the long term, and maybe starting soon with the pending decision in Rudigier, C-518/17), but not without creating a significant risk of collapse of the ECJ (or, at least, an even more significant growth in procurement-related preliminary references). From that perspective, the possibility to engage in maximum harmonization (as rather implicitly advocated by the EFTA Court) deserves some consideration.

(3) Maximum harmonization through a revised remedies directive?

In my view wrongly, the EFTA Court holds the implicit normative position that the Remedies Directive is an instrument of maximum harmonisation when it emphasises its ‘objective of creating equal conditions for the remedies available in the context of public procurement’ (see Fosen-Linjen, para 78 above, emphasis added). The EFTA Court derives this objective in an earlier passage, where it stresses that a 'fundamental objective of the Remedies Directive is to create the framework conditions under which tenderers can seek remedies in the context of public procurement procedures, in a way that is as uniform as possible for all undertakings active on the internal market. Thereby, as is also apparent from the third and fourth recitals to the Remedies Directive, equal conditions shall be secured (sic)' (Fosen-Linjen, para 66, emphasis added).

I think this is a clear judicial excess and I do not think the Remedies Directive can be considered an instrument of maximum harmonization (ie a tool that sets a ceiling, or even a common core of protections that must be uniformly provided in all EEA States) in the way the EFTA Court does. In my view, this is particularly clear from recital (6) of the Remedies Directive, according to which: ‘it is necessary to ensure that adequate procedures exist in all the Member States to permit the setting aside of decisions taken unlawfully and compensation of persons harmed by an infringement’ (emphasis added; note that adequate procedures are not necessarily homogeneous or identical procedures)--which the EFTA Court includes in its Judgment (para 3), but then largely ignores.

However, the EFTA Court does have a point when it stresses that the divergence of rules on (damages) remedies can distort the procurement field and, in particular, discourage cross-border participation—which could be alleviated by a reform of the Remedies Directive to create such maximum harmonization. Such revision and an explicit view on the elements of a uniform system of maximum harmonisation could bring a much needed clarification of the function and position of different types of remedies under its architecture—notably, it would clarify whether damages are a perfect substitute for other remedies (as the EFTA Court seems to believe) or an ancillary remedy [as I posit, maybe not in the clearest terms, in A Sanchez-Graells, '"If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts' in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Contrôles et contentieux des contrats publics (Bruylant, 2018)]. Maximum harmonisation could also provide an opportunity to consider the creation of safe harbours (at least of damages liability) for purely procedural errors, or in the context of certain general guidelines.

Nonetheless, despite potential advantages derived from a revision of the system to consider maximum harmonization, given the vast differences in the rules on damages claims across EU jurisdictions, it would be certainly difficult, if not outright impossible, to reach an agreement on the adequate level of protection and the relevant procedural mechanisms [for comparative discussion, see for example, the contributions to S Treumer & F Lichère (eds), Enforcement of the EU Public Procurement Rules (DJØF, 2011), and to D Fairgrieve & F Lichère (eds), Public Procurement Law. Damages as an Effective Remedy (Hart, 2011); see also H Schebesta, Damages in EU Public Procurement Law (Springer, 2016)].

Given these practical difficulties, I would not think the European Commission would be willing to engage in the exercise of designing such maximum harmonization, even if it decided to revise the Remedies Directive in the future (which, unfortunately, seems very unlikely at least for now). What then should not be acceptable is for such maximum harmonisation to be achieved or imposed through an excessively broad interpretation of the Remedies Directive as, in my view, the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen judgment does.

(4) Damages-based enforcement of procurement rules & EU tort law

As a last thought, I think it is worth stressing that, in addition to the practical difficulties derived from the current minimum harmonization of procurement remedies, and the not smaller difficulties in attempting a maximum harmonization, there are also structural tensions in the use of damages actions for the enforcement of EU public procurement rules. As recent research has clearly shown (see P Giliker (ed), Research Handbook on EU Tort Law (Elgar, 2017)), the use of damages actions (either based on Francovich liability, or sector-specific rules) for the enforcement of substantive EU law creates distortions in the domestic legal systems of the Member States. From that perspective, both the minimum and maximum harmonization approaches are problematic.

From the minimum harmonization perspective, because the existence of two tiers of protection can also result in two tiers of regulation and/or case law concerning the interpretation and application of the rules, which is bound to create legal uncertainty (eg if issues around the effectiveness of the remedy in the EU-tier create pressures on the interpretation of the domestic-tier remedies as a result of reverse pressures resulting from the principle of equivalence—ie the domestic remedy can hardly be both broader in scope and less effective in its consequences).

From the maximum harmonization perspective, because the creation of a one-size-fits-all remedy (such as that derived from the lower threshold for damages liability in the EFTA Court’s Judgment) can have rather drastic impacts for some Member States (in particular, those without a ‘higher-tier’ domestic protection), not only in the area of procurement law, but also in other areas of (economic) law which regulation and case law can be distorted as a result of the EU rules.

Thus, it seems adequate (and it may not be too late…) to reconsider a drastic change in the enforcement strategy to reduce the current over-reliance on tenderer-led administrative and/or judicial reviews, and start to move away from damages-fueled private enforcement of EU public procurement law and towards a more robust architecture of public enforcement with a restriction of damages compensation solely in exceptional cases—certainly where that compensation goes beyond direct participation costs.

Discussing the possibilities of doing so and the challenges it would imply far exceeds the possibilities of this post, but given that reaching a ‘happy median’ in the regulation of (private) damages actions in the context of procurement remedies in the EU would not be a minor feat, it may be time to (re)open that discussion.

Important EFTA case on procurement damages: Was the court of one mind, and will the CJEU follow? (E-16/16)

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In its Judgment of 31 October 2017 in Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS, the EFTA Court issued an important Opinion on the interpretation of the procurement Remedies Directive (Dir 89/665/EEC, as amended by Dir 2007/66/EC) and, in particular, on the conditions for the recognition of a right to damages compensation where the contracting authority uses an illegal award criterion and subsequently decides to cancel the tender for that reason. That is, cases where it is clear (and acknowledged by the contracting authority itself) that the procurement procedure was not fully compliant with substantive EU/EEA public procurement rules--which comes to constrain the legal analysis to the question whether the irregularity is such as to allow disappointed tenderers to claim damages compensation.

The Fosen-Linjen case raised a number of issues in the six questions sent to the EFTA Court, such as the threshold for liability, evidentiary requirements, causation, exoneration causes and due diligence requirements. All of them are important but, in my view, the main relevance of the case concerns the threshold of liability, on which the EFTA Court found that 

A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability of the contracting authority to compensate the person harmed for the damage incurred, pursuant to Article 2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665/EEC, provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met, including, in particular, the condition of a causal link (E-16/16, para 82).

The EFTA Court reached this position in answer to a series of questions and sub-questions concerning whether liability under the Remedies Directive was conditional upon the contracting authority having deviated markedly from a justifiable course of action, upon it having incurred a material error that justified a finding of culpability under a general assessment, or upon it having incurred in an inexcusable'material, gross and obvious error' (question 1), or whether liability can be triggered under a test of 'sufficiently qualified breach' where the contracting authority was left with no discretion as to how to interpret or apply the infringed substantive rule (question 2). 

In the case at hand, the EFTA Court decided to group these questions and address them together. In my view, this has been determinative of the outcome of the case. Had the Court addressed the questions sequentially, and inverting the order, it would have been possible to establish that a breach of a substantive provision for which interpretation and application the contracting authority has no discretion constitutes a 'sufficiently serious breach' of EU/EEA procurement law triggering liability (if all other requirements are met) (question 2), which would have rendered the other issues (question 1) moot and unnecessary in this case. By choosing not to do so, the EFTA Court grabbed an opportunity to influence the development of EU/EEA law in the area of procurement remedies in a way that I am not sure will be productive in the long run, particularly because the rather extreme position taken by the EFTA Court--ie that any simple breach of EU/EEA procurement law suffices to generate liability for damages--was not really necessary under the circumstances and does not easily sit with previous developments in the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Ultimately, this finding is controversial because of (1) the way the EFTA Court couches the deviation of liability standards under the Remedies Directive and under the general doctrine of State liability for breach of EU/EEA law, as well as (2) due to the fact that the EFTA Court engages in contradictory normative assessments in the reasoning that leads to this conclusion--which makes the interpretation and operationalisation of its main finding rather tricky. In my view, these two points of contention make it unclear that the CJEU--which is not bound by the EFTA Court's interpretation--will adopt the same approach. I will explore these two issues in turn.

Is public procurement special?

One of the normative and doctrinal issues in the background of the discussion surrounding the threshold of liability under the Remedies Directive concerns its relationship with the general doctrine of State liability for breach of EU/EEA law. The position taken by the EFTA Court on this point is not very clear--despite explicit submissions to that effect by the parties, the Norwegian government and the EFTA Surveillance Authority--but it seems to indicate that the Court considers that procurement law is somehow special.

While it is commonly accepted that the State liability doctrine is premised on the existence of a sufficiently serious breach of EU/EEA law (as seminally established in Francovich and Others, C‑6/90 and C‑9/90, EU:C:1991:428, para 35, and in Brasserie du Pêcheur and Factortame, C‑46/93 and C‑48/93, EU:C:1996:79, paras 31 and 51, and consistently reiterated by the CJEU, most recently in Ullens de Schooten, C-268/15, EU:C:2016:874, para 41), the EFTA Court is not willing to retain this threshold of liability in the area of procurement. As the EFTA Court indicated

... it has already been established that a national rule making the award of damages conditional on proof of fault or fraud would make actions for damages more difficult and costly, thereby impairing the full effectiveness of the public procurement rules ... The same must apply where there exists a general exclusion or a limitation of the remedy of damages to only specific cases. This would be the case, for example, if only breaches of a certain gravity would be considered sufficient to trigger the contracting authority’s liability, whereas minor breaches would allow the contracting authority to incur no liability (E-16/16, para 77, emphasis added).

In other words, the EFTA Court is not willing to tolerate a situation where what could be termed de minimis breaches of EU/EEA public procurement law remain unchallenged and, in that regard, the Court seems to have been influenced by the European Commission's position that 'any infringement of public procurement law should be followed up and should not be left unattended because the breach is not “sufficiently serious”' (E-16/16, para 59). The EFTA Court thus seems to consider that the establishment of an almost absolute right to claim damages is necessary to ensure the desirable effectiveness of EU/EEA procurement law.

The Court also considers that '[a] requirement that only a breach of a certain gravity may give rise to damages could also run contrary to the objective of creating equal conditions for the remedies available in the context of public procurement. Depending on the circumstances, a breach of the same provision on EEA public procurement could lead to liability in one EEA State while not giving rise to damages in another EEA State' (E-16/16, para 78), which is by no means obvious, in particular if the preliminary reference mechanism works appropriately. 

In my opinion, this general line of reasoning conflates two separate issues. First, whether any infringement of EU/EEA substantive law should trigger a ground for the review of the procurement decision concerned and, if justified, to set it aside. Second, whether any infringement of EU/EEA substantive law should provide a right to claim damages. By conflating both issues, the EFTA Court implicitly assumes that claims for damages are the only effective remedy. The Court does not take into account the existence of public oversight mechanisms able to 'pick up' on those de minimis infringements of EU/EEA public procurement law, and seems not to think it possible for disappointed tenderers to exercise rights of review in the absence of the financial incentives resulting from damages claims. This comes both to establish a hierarchy of remedies that is absent in the Remedies Directive [see A Sanchez-Graells, '"If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It"? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts' in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Contrôles et contentieux des contrats publics (Bruylant, 2018) forthc.], and to create the same risk of deformation of EU tort law that we have witnessed in other areas of EU economic law [see O Odudu & A Sanchez-Graells, 'The interface of EU and national tort law: Competition law', in P Giliker (ed), Research Handbook on EU Tort Law (Elgar, 2017); as well as the rest of contributions to that volume].

From a normative perspective, I find this approach problematic due to the perverse incentives it creates--and which I think the EFTA Court was somehow aware of (see below). Moreover, I am not persuaded that this would necessarily be the position of the CJEU, which has in the past held that Art.2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665 'gives concrete expression to the principle of State liability for loss and damage caused to individuals as a result of breaches of EU law for which the State can be held responsible' (Combinatie Spijker Infrabouw-De Jonge Konstruktie and Others, C-568/08, EU:C:2010:751, para 87, emphasis added). From that perspective, and even if the CJEU is likely to continue developing its line of case law that prevents the creation of additional requirements for the existence of liability in damages (as is clear it did by rejecting the imposition of a requirement of fault in Strabag and Others, C-314/09, EU:C:2010:567), I see no reason why it would accept that the requirement for a 'sufficiently serious breach' does not apply in this sub-field of State liability.

In my view, this is particularly important because the position taken by the EFTA Court was both unnecessary for the resolution of the case, and not explicitly premised on a deviation of the State liability doctrine, which leaves the CJEU an easy way out if it decides to take a different approach in the future. In my view, this is likely, because from a normative point of view, the position taken by the EFTA Court is not easily tenable.

What are the implications for contracting authorities and tenderers?

One of the important normative aspects on which the EFTA Court's Fosen-Linjen Judgment rests concerns the incentives that different liability thresholds and requirements create. In that regard, the Court seems to adopt two contradictory normative standpoints in dealing with the twin question of the threshold for liability and the causality requirement--which are indivisibly interlinked in its overall finding that 'A simple breach of public procurement law is in itself sufficient to trigger the liability ... provided that the other conditions for the award of damages are met, including, in particular, the condition of a causal link' (E-16/16, para 82, emphasis added). The contradiction is as follows.

On the one hand, the EFTA Court considers that a simple infringement of EU/EEA public procurement rules must suffice to trigger liability because

... damages seek to achieve a three-fold objective: to compensate for any losses suffered; to restore confidence in the effectiveness of the applicable legal framework; and to deter contracting authorities from acting in such a manner, which will improve future compliance with the applicable rules. Liability through damages may also provide a strong incentive for diligence in the preparation of the tender procedure, which will, ultimately, prevent the waste of resources and compel the contracting authority to evaluate the particular market’s features. Were liability to be excluded, this may lead to a lack of restraint of the contracting authority (E-16/16, para 76, emphasis added).

Thus, in this part of the Judgment, the EFTA Court considers a high likelihood of liability a proper incentive for adequate diligence and decision-making on the part of the contracting authority.

Conversely, on the other hand, when assessing the causality requirements for the recognition of a right to damages compensation (in the context of the fourth question referred by the Norwegian court), the EFTA Court stresses that

... there must be a balance between the different interests at stake. While liability of the contracting authority for any errors committed promotes, in principle, the overall compliance with the applicable legal framework, exaggerated liability of the contracting authority could lead to excessive avoidance costs, reduce the flexibility of the applicable framework and may even lead to the unjust enrichment of an unsuccessful tenderer. Furthermore, excessive liability may provide an incentive for a contracting authority to complete award procedures, that were evidently unlawful, or impinge upon the freedom to contract (E-16/16, para 101, emphasis added). 

This clearly indicates that the existence of liability needs to be constrained or modulated. The EFTA Court seems to want to do so by establishing a complicated approach to causality requirements that would distinguish between those applicable to claims for negative and positive damages (ie bid costs and loss of profits). Even in the context of the first question, the EFTA Court had already shown some inconsistency when establishing that 'a claim for damages can only succeed if certain other conditions are fulfilled, such as the condition that there must be a sufficient causal link between the infringement committed and the damage incurred' (E-16/16, para 81, emphasis added)--which, however, is not equally reflected in the wording of its general finding, which only makes reference to 'the condition of a causal link' (para 82). 

In my view, the approach (implicitly) followed by the EFTA Court is not better than the alternative approach of having closely stuck to a requirement for a sufficient breach of EU/EEA public procurement rules. Even if a combination of low liability threshold (simple breach) and high causality requirements ('sufficient causality') could lead to the same practical results that a requirement for 'sufficiently serious breach', the EFTA approach creates legal uncertainty and more scope for divergence across EU/EEA jurisdictions, not the least because causation is within the remit of domestic law. more importantly, it can create a wave of litigation based on any (minimal, formal, irrelevant) errors in the conduct of procurement procedures in an attempt to test the boundaries of that test.

In my view, on the whole, it would have been preferable to stick to the general framework of the State action doctrine as specified in the Remedies Directive, which is compatible with a finding of a requirement for there to be a 'sufficiently serious breach' of EU/EEA procurement law and, at the same time, with a finding that breaching a provision for which interpretation and application the contracting authority has no discretion (eg the obligation to be in a position to verify the content of tenders against its requirements and award criteria, as in Fosen-Linjen) suffices to trigger liability (the same way that the mere lack of transposition of a Directive triggers State liability under the general test). Therefore, I very much hope that this issue is brought to the CJEU soon, and I would strongly advocate for the CJEU to explicitly reject the EFTA Court's approach.

 

Interesting short paper on public procurement and competition law: Blažo (2015)

Reading O Blažo, 'Public Procurement Directive and Competition Law - Really United in Diversity?' (2015), I have found some interesting and thought-provoking remarks on the impact of public procurement regulation over the effectiveness of competition law enforcement. The paper focuses 'mainly on three problematic issues: participation of companies of the same economic group in public procurement procedure, disqualification for cartel infringement, attractiveness of leniency programme'.

Multiple bidding by members of an economic group

Blažo's discussion of the issue of multiple participation by companies of the same economic group discusses Assitur (C-538/07, EU:C:2009:317), where the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) declared contrary to EU public procurement law an Italian rule not allowing companies linked by a relationship of control or significant influence to participate, as competing tenderers, in the same procedure for the award of a public contract. The CJEU determined that, 'while pursuing legitimate objectives of equality of treatment of tenderers and transparency in procedures for the award of public contracts, [a national rule that] lays down an absolute prohibition on simultaneous and competing participation in the same tendering procedure by undertakings linked by a relationship of control or affiliated to one another, without allowing them an opportunity to demonstrate that that relationship did not influence their conduct in the course of that tendering procedure' is incompatible with EU public procurement law (para 33, emphasis added). 

Blažo considers that this 'appears as “over-regulation” and “under-regulation” [at] the same time in his context: it does not solve problem of participation of several companies forming of one economic group in one tender procedure and on the other hand outlaws their automatic exclusion'. I would disagree with this critical assessment and submit that the CJEU reached a good balance of competing interests (ie ensuring sufficient intra-tender competition vs avoiding collusion or manipulation risks). As I wrote in Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 341-342 (references omitted): 

the grounds for exclusion based on professional qualities of the tenderers—and the existence of relationships of control between them, or their control structure, is clearly a professional quality—are exhaustively listed in article 57 of Directive 2014/24, which precludes Member States or contracting authorities from adding other grounds for exclusion based on criteria relating to professional qualities of the candidate or tenderer, such as professional honesty, solvency and economic and financial capacity. Nevertheless, it does not preclude the option for Member States to maintain or adopt substantive rules designed, in particular, to ensure, in the field of public procurement, observance of the principle of equal treatment and of the principle of transparency. Given that the extension of the ban on multiple bidding has as its clear rationale the prevention of discrimination between self-standing entities and those integrated in group structures, prima facie it seems to constitute a case of permitted additional ground for the exclusion of tenderers not regulated by article 57 of Directive 2014/24.
However, as also noted, when establishing these additional grounds for the exclusion of tenderers, Member States must comply with the principle of proportionality and the automatic exclusion of tenderers for the sole fact of belonging to the same legal group seems to be in breach of this latter requirement. Interestingly, EU case law seems to be moving in the direction of restricting the scope of this type of (extended) prohibition by outlawing the automatic exclusion from tendering procedures of tenderers between which there exists a relationship of control (as defined by national law) without giving them an opportunity to prove that, in the circumstances of the case, that relationship had not led to an infringement of the principles of equal treatment of tenderers and of transparency.
This would be in line with the rules applicable to the treatment of conflicts of interest (art 24 Dir 2014/24), which only justify the exclusion of candidates and tenderers ‘where a conflict of interest … cannot be effectively remedied by other less intrusive measures’ (art 57(4)(e) Dir 2014/24). 

Exclusion of competition law infringers, Self-cleaning & impact on the attractiveness of leniency programmes

Interestingly, Blažo explains that, under the version of Slovak procurement law prior to the transposition of Dir 2014/24, contracting authorities were bound to exclude tenderers that had been convicted of infringements of competition law [on this, see Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469, and discussion here], but 'undertaking[s] who successfully qualified for the leniency program (immunity as well as fine
reduction)
' were not excluded from participation in public procurement procedures. Or, in more detail, 'The scheme excluding entrepreneurs who have been convicted of a cartel in public procurement applies automatically, therefore there is no need to issue any other disqualification decision. It is also a compulsory system, thus the contracting authority authority shall be obliged to exclude such an undertaking ex officio, and the law does not allow any way to alleviate such sanctions. Only the undertaking who takes part in an agreement restricting competition in public procurement can avoid exclusion from public procurement, its cooperation with the Antimonopoly Office in leniency program' (Blažo, p. 1494).

Blažo then goes on to assess the changes that the transposition of Dir 2014/24 will require [in particular, art 57(4)(d) on the exclusion of competition law infringers and art 57(6) on self-cleaning, for discussion, see here and A Sanchez-Graells, 'Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Short-listing', in F Lichère, R Caranta & S Treumer (eds), Modernising Public Procurement. The New Directive, vol. 6 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF, 2014) 97-129], noting that 'the directive does not expressly mention leniency program as an exemption from exclusion'; and, in particular, criticises the fact that Art 57(7) requires that Member States 'shall, in particular, determine the maximum period of exclusion if no [self-cleaning] measures ... are taken by the economic operator to demonstrate its reliability. Where the period of exclusion has not been set by final judgment, that period shall not exceed ... three years from the date of the relevant event in the cases referred to in paragraph 4'. In view of this, Blažo concludes that

If the contracting entity wishes to establish an infringement using a final decision of competition authority (or judgment dismissing the action against such a decision), it is almost unrealistic to have these documents available within three years from the infringement, or the time for which the undertaking can be excluded from public procurement will be very short. It is obvious that word-by-word transposition of the PPD into Slovak legal order eliminates current patterns punishment of undertakings for bid rigging and replaces it with a system that does not constitute a sufficient threat of sanctions, which would have preventive effects against cartels in public procurement. Furthermore even in case of effective application of this system, it may discourage leniency applicants and thus undermine effective public enforcement of competition law (p. 1495).

I share some of his concerns about the difficulty of establishing appropriate timeframes for exclusion based on competition law infringements. As I pointed out in Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (2015) 291:

This raises the issue of how to compute the maximum duration, particularly in the case of article 57(4) violations, as the reference to the ‘relevant event’ admits different interpretations (ie, either from the moment of the relevant violation, or the moment in which the contracting authority is aware of it or can prove it). Given that some of the violations may take time to identify (eg, emergence of a previous bid rigging conspiracy that can be tackled under art 57(4)(c) Dir 2014/24), a possibilistic interpretation will be necessary to avoid reducing the effectiveness of these exclusion grounds. In any case, compliance with domestic administrative rules will be fundamental.

However, I am not sure that I share the concerns about the effectiveness of leniency programmes and their attractiveness for undertakings that may risk exclusion from procurement procedures. First, I am generally sceptical of the claim that leniency programmes need to be protected at all costs (see here, here and here). Second, and looking specifically at the worry that not having a mention to leniency programmes in Dir 2014/24 may exclude or reduce the possibility for contracting authorities (or Member States) to treat leniency applicants favourably in the procurement context, I am not sure that this is the case, mainly, because it would still seem possible for competition rules to foresee that any final decisions declaring the infringement of competition law should not include sanctions concerning debarment from public procurement procedures for leniency applicants (I am not convinced that this is desirable, but it is certainly possible). In that case, there would be no final judgment from which the exclusion could derive and, consequently, contracting authorities intending to exclude the leniency applicant in view of its previous infringement of competition law would be using their discretion to exclude without the constraints derived from the previous decision. This has a significant impact in terms of self-cleaning.

While Art 57(6) in fine foresees that 'An economic operator which has been excluded by final judgment from participating in procurement ... shall not be entitled to make use of the [self-cleaning] possibility ... during the period of exclusion resulting from that judgment in the Member States where the judgment is effective' [something I criticised in 'Exclusion, Qualitative Selection and Short-listing' (2014) 113], this restriction does not apply in the absence of a final judgment imposing the exclusion. Thus, the successful leniency applicant would still be able to rely on its leniency application and collaboration with the competition authority in order to claim it has complied with the requirements of the self-cleaning provisions in Art 57(6) Dir 2014/24. The sticky point would be the need to 'prove that it has paid or undertaken to pay compensation in respect of any damage caused by the ... misconduct'. Of course, this takes us back to the claim that leniency programmes will not be attractive if, in addition to exempting the applicant from the competition fine that would otherwise be applicable (let's remember it can be up to 10% of its turnover), they do not also shield competition law infringers from claims for damages--and now public procurement debarment. As mentioned, I am highly sceptical of these claims and, from a normative perspective, I am not persuaded that leniency should come at such high cost.

In any case, these are interesting issues and it would be very relevant to engage in empirical research to see if the entry into force of Dir 2014/24 last month actually has an impact on the effectiveness of leniency programmes in the EU.

 

CJEU decouples limitation periods for award challenges and for damages actions in EU public procurement (C-166/14)

In its Judgment in MedEval, C-166/14, EU:C:2015:779, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has clarified the rules on the establishment of limitation periods applicable to damages actions based on the infringement of EU public procurement rules. The CJEU has interpreted the EU Remedies Directive in a way that excludes the establishment of absolute time periods. In particular, the CJEU has ruled that , when it comes to damages actions for breach of EU public procurement rules, the establishment of an absolute 6-month limitation period from the day after the date of the award of the public contract in question runs contrary to the principle of effectiveness of EU law. 

In the case at hand, which concerned Austrian procurement rules, actions seeking damages for the illegal award of a public contract could only be derived or of a follow-on nature. That is, damages actions were conditional upon a prior declaration by the competent procurement supervisory authority that the implementation of a public procurement procedure without prior notice or without prior call for competition was unlawful. Such original action, from which the damages claim could only derive, had to be lodged within 6 months of the day following the date of the award of the contract. As a result of this dual requirement, and even if no specific time period was foreseen for damages actions themselves, the latter were absolutely time barred at the expiry of a 6-month period from the day after the date of the award of the public contract.

MedEval challenged this implicit or indirect absolute 6-month limitation period for the exercise of damages claims on the basis that it made it particularly difficult, if not totally impossible, to challenge direct awards that were never disclosed to the public. Under Austrian law, and under a strict interpretation of those cumulative requirements, it would be possible for a contracting authority to enter into an illegal direct award and shield itself from any liability in damages, provided only that it could keep such illegal direct award secret for 6 months. 

In MedEval's view, it should be possible for disappointed bidders to challenge illegal direct awards and obtain reparation in damages provided they acted promptly from the moment when they became aware of the unlawfulness of the procedure at issue. Ultimately, as the referring court stressed, that would be in line with the Judgment in Uniplex (UK) (C-406/08, EU:C:2010:45), according to which the period for bringing proceedings to obtain damages should start to run from the date on which the claimant knew, or ought to have known, of that alleged infringement.

The CJEU has accepted such an approach and has stressed that, indeed, the establishment of absolute limitation periods would have a very negative impact on the effectiveness of EU public procurement law. In the MedEval Judgment, the CJEU reasoned that
35 As regards actions for damages, it must be noted that Directive 89/665 provides ... that Member States may provide that where damages are claimed, the contested decision must first be set aside ‘by a body having the necessary powers’ without, however, laying down a rule as regards the time-limits for bringing actions or other conditions for the admissibility of such actions.
36 In the present case it appears, in principle, that ... Directive 89/665 does not preclude a provision of national law ... under which a claim for damages is admissible only if there has been a prior finding of an infringement of procurement law. However, the combined application [of the 6-month time limit applicable to that prior action] ... has the effect that an action for damages is inadmissible in the absence of a prior decision finding that the public procurement procedure for the contract in question was unlawful, where the action for a declaration of unlawfulness is subject to a six-month limitation period which starts to run on the day after the date of the award of the public contract in question, irrespective of whether or not the applicant was in a position to know of the unlawfulness affecting that award decision.
37 ... it is for the Member States to lay down the detailed procedural rules governing actions for damages. Those detailed procedural rules must, however, be no less favourable than those governing similar domestic actions (principle of equivalence) and must not render practically impossible or excessively difficult the exercise of rights conferred by EU law (principle of effectiveness) (see, to that effect, judgments in eVigilo, C-538/13, EU:C:2015:166, paragraph 39, and Orizzonte Salute, C-61/14, EU:C:2015:655, paragraph 46).
38 In consequence, it is necessary to examine whether the principles of effectiveness and equivalence preclude a national rule such as that set out in paragraph 36 of the present judgment.
39 As regards the principle of effectiveness, it is appropriate to point out that the degree of necessity for legal certainty concerning the conditions for the admissibility of actions is not identical for actions for damages and actions seeking to have a contract declared ineffective.
40 Rendering a contract concluded following a public procurement procedure ineffective puts an end to the existence and possibly the performance of that contract, which constitutes a significant intervention by the administrative or judicial authority in the contractual relations between individuals and State bodies. Such a decision can thus cause considerable upset and financial losses not only to the successful tenderer for the public contract in question, but also to the awarding authority and, consequently, to the public, the end beneficiary of the supply of work or services under the public contract in question. ... the EU legislature placed greater importance on the requirement for legal certainty as regards actions for a declaration that a contract is ineffective than as regards actions for damages.
41 Making the admissibility of actions for damages subject to a prior finding that the public procurement procedure for the contract in question was unlawful because of the lack of prior publication of a contract notice, where the action for a declaration of unlawfulness is subject to a six-month limitation period, irrespective of whether or not the person harmed knew that there had been an infringement of a rule of law, is likely to render impossible in practice or excessively difficult the exercise of the right to bring an action for damages.
42 Where there has been no prior publication of a contract notice, such a limitation period of six months is likely not to enable a person harmed to gather the necessary information with a view to a possible action, thus preventing that action from being brought.
43 Awarding damages to persons harmed by an infringement of the public procurement rules constitutes one of the remedies guaranteed under EU law. Thus, in circumstances such as those at issue in the main proceedings, the person harmed is deprived not only of the possibility of having the awarding authority’s decision annulled, but also of all the remedies provided for in ... Directive 89/665.
44 Consequently, the principle of effectiveness precludes a system such as that at issue in the main proceedings (C-166/14, paras 35-44, emphasis added).
This Judgment is particularly important for jurisdictions that set absolute time limits for the start of proceedings, particularly if they create similar cumulative effects of definitely time-barring actions for damages based on infringements of EU public procurement law (ie where damages actions are necessarily of a derivative or follow-on nature). Those jurisdictions will likely need to change their procedural rules to adapt to MedEval

In the UK, however, there seems to be no need to reform reg.92 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which already establishes time periods based on the the starting point of when the economic operator first knew or ought to have known that grounds for starting the proceedings had arisen (see here).

GC imposes liability on the European Commission for obvious breach of equal treatment in public procurement (T-199/14)

In its Judgment of 29 October 2015 iVanbreda Risk & Benefits v Commission, T-199/14, EU:T:2015:820 (not available in English), the General Court (GC) annulled a procurement award decision for several breaches of the principle of equal treatment and condemned the European Commission to compensate the complainant for the damages resulting from the award of the contract to a competing undertaking. 

This is the second instance of imposition of liability on EU Institutions for breach of the applicable public procurement rules in less than a month (see European Dynamics Luxembourg v OHIM). However, this case differs from previous findings of liability of EU Institutions because it is not concerned with formal aspects of the procurement process (namely, debriefing obligations and the duty to state reasons), but with substantial issues concerning the equal treatment of tenderers. 

In fact, as the analysis below will show, the case indicates very poor procurement practice by the European Commission, which is surprising and may diminish the credibility of the institution that is aiming to foster a culture of compliance with public procurement rules as a key aspect of the new strategy for a deeper and fairer internal market (see comments here). Indeed, the Commission would be well advised to tighten up its own procurement processes and to lead by example in such change of mentality regarding compliance with  substantive standards and good procurement practices.

In the case at hand, the European Commission had tendered a contract for insurance services. Amongst the tender conditions, the Commission imposed that 'in the case of awarding the contract to a consortium of economic operators, all members of this group had to have " joint responsibility [...] in executing the contract"'. This requirement triggered a significant volume of documentary obligations in case tenderers intended to submit joint offers as part of a consortium (see T-199/14, paras 7-12). 

The Commission received two offers: one from Vanbreda Risk & Benefits (Vanbreda) and one from Marsh. Marsh's offer was made in consortium with others, and this included the participation of AIG Europe Limited (AIG). In view of this, Vanbreda indicated to the European Commission that, in its ownexperience,
AIG, who participated in the Marsh consortium, refused on principle to jointly undertake liability and therefore [Vanbreda] was almost certain that [Marsh's] could not comply with the substantive and formal requirements of the tender specifications (T-199/14, para 14, own translation from French).
The European Commission did not respond to this claim by Vanbreda. First, on the basis that the evaluation of the tenders was on-going (para 15) and, upon communicating its decision to award the contract to the Marsh consortium and Vanbreda's insistence that the offer could not possibly meet the requirement of joint liability, on the pretext that at this debriefing stage, it could not provide information other that 'the characteristics and relative advantages of the successful tender and the name of the successful tenderer' (para 21). After repeated requests from Vanbreda, the Commission eventually replied that
the issues at the root of the applicant's concern had been duly analyzed throughout the tender evaluation stage, that all offers were found compliant and, therefore, the contract was awarded to the bid with the lowest price. The Commission did not forward any of the requested documents to the applicant (T-199/14, para 24, own translation from French).
Unsurprisingly, Vanbreda challenged the award decision. Its main contention was that by allowing Marsh to offer a joint bid for the performance of the contract with a consortium of non-jointly and severally liable insurers, the Commission would have allowed this operator to offer a much lower price (see paras 42-43, where the impact of joint liability on pricing is further discussed).

Upon review of the file in the context of the challenge, Vanbreda discovered that its interpretation of the offer submitted by Marsh did not reflect the reality of the offer submitted by Marsh in cooperation with other insurers. As the GC summarises
Marsh would have in fact filed its offer as a broker sole tenderer and the Commission and Marsh would have corresponded extensively after the opening of tenders about the solidarity condition. The Commission never reported these facts to [Vanbreda], despite repeated questioning of the latter (T-199/14, para 45, own translation from French).
In view of these additional facts, Vanbreda adjusted its arguments to oppose the possibility that an insurance company such as Marsh could have submitted an offer as a 'broker sole tenderer' because, in its view, this would have infringed the requirement of joint liability in the execution of the contract. The Commission opposed this argument on the basis that it relied on an erroneous and restrictive interpretation of both the tender documentation and Belgian law (see details in paras 54-55).

In view of these arguments, and after reminding that the principle of equal treatment of tenderers aims to promote the development of healthy and effective competition between companies participating in a public tender and requires that all tenderers have the same chances in formulating the terms of their offers and are subject to the same conditions of competition (para 64), the GC found that
93 It appears from the foregoing that the admission of a broker to participate in the tender as the sole tenderer is contrary both to the provisions of the tender and the economy of the system set up thereby. The arguments put forward by the Commission concerning the goal it would have pursued of trying to maintain a high level of competition by the participants in the contested tender, are not likely to justify non-compliance with the tender documentation.

94 Furthermore, it appears from the evidence that one of the essential conditions of the tender consisted in the commitment, by the insurer or insurers, to ensure that the contracting authority would benefit from a 100% coverage of the risks set out in the specifications.

95 According to the Commission, in the hypothesis ... of a broker sole tenderer, it would have been incumbent upon the latter to organize the practicalities of the execution of the contract. This approach would have meant for the Commission to check whether the 100% coverage condition described in paragraph 94 above was fulfilled by focusing solely on the results and not on how it was obtained.

96 In this case, when submitting his tender, Marsh presented a distribution of risks between the participating insurance companies in order to reach the goal of 100% coverage. By letter of 14 February 2014, Marsh informed the Commission that one of the insurers to take part in its offering, AIG, had refused to sign the contract. Following this defection, Marsh proposed a new allocation of these risks, without changing the total price of the successful tender, which implied that the coverage of the share of AIG's participation would firstly be achieved by increasing the participation quotas of the remaining insurance companies and, secondly, by allocating a portion of that share to two new insurance companies  that were not among those originally specified in the Marsh's tender.

97 Accordingly, when Marsh had to, firstly, renegotiate increasing the shares of the insurance companies which had initially mandated it as a broker and, secondly, negotiate the participation of two new insurers, not only the competing offer [by Vanbreda] was known, but the certainty of the award to Marsh was acquired. Conversely, if at the time of the formation of the initial offer, and therefore without knowing that the contract would be awarded to them, the insurance companies mandating Marsh had had to assume higher quotas of participation, which implied greater risks for them, it is likely that, in all economic probability, they would have demanded an increase in their remuneration. This could, therefore, have lead to an increase in the tender price. Similarly, the negotiation of a stake by two new insurers in the offer, at a time when neither the price of the competing offer nor the certainty of obtaining the contract would have been known, was also likely to lead to a different result, potentially affecting the total price of the offer proposed by Marsh upwards. Rather, in this case, the two new insurance companies could know exactly the maximum remuneration they could get at the time when they entered into an agreement with Marsh.

98 Therefore, even if the total price of the successful tender has actually not changed for the Commission, the conditions negotiated between the broker sole contractor and the rest of the insurance companies have undoubtedly been changed.

99 It follows from the above that the admission of a broker to participate in the call as a sole tenderer mandated by insurance companies, first, makes illusory the verification by the evaluation committee of the merits of the offer against the conditions imposed by the specifications; secondly, allows said broker to benefit, in this case, of a competitive advantage over other bidders; and thirdly, causes unequal treatment in favour of the broker sole tenderer relative, in particular, to a competitor submitting a joint bid with one or more insurers (T-199/14, paras 93-99, own translation from French and emphasis added).
The GC then goes on to assess to what extent the mere fact of the Commission's engagement with Marsh in pushing for a substitution of AIG after having found out that such insurance company had not accepted the clause on joint liability (as suggested by Vanbreda) amounted to a violation of the principle of equal treatment and the prohibition of negotiations immediately prior to award of the contract, and finds that it is indeed the case (paras 102-133) [for discussion on how such pre-award negotiations can affect competition, and arguments supporting the position followed by the GC, see A Sanchez Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 418-421].

The GC also assesses to what extent the post-evaluation authorisation of a change in the composition of the consortium on which Marsh actually relied also amounts, in itself, to a breach of the principle of equal treatment and, once more, it finds that such a breach took place (paras 134-158). 

Once these infringements are settled, the GC then goes one to assess to what extent the Commission needs to indemnify Vanbreda and finds that the damage derived from the loss of a chance of being awarded the contract and to obtain the corresponding market references in terms of experience is recoverable, but that the rest of claims on the basis of expected benefits and moral damage are not (paras 160-217).

As mentioned at the beginning, in my view, this is a case that shows that the European Commission may not be itself prepared to comply with the very same principles it expects Member States to adhere to. It seems just too obvious that the Commission was willing to engage in very significant procedural irregularities in order to secure a saving of about €0.25mn/year, which was the difference between the offers submitted by Marsh and Vanbreda

Under certain lenses, this is an understandable situation, but this is precisely why the rules on the award of public contracts need to prevent these situations of financial conflict of interest in the assessment of non-compliant bids. It seems like there is a very long and winding road ahead in terms of trying to avoid these problems down the rout of fostering a culture of compliance... In the meantime, this type of hard enforcement decisions such as the GC Judgment in Vanbreda Risk & Benefits v Commission must be most welcome.

Not all investors are equal ... or not equal to the EU financial institutions anyway (re 2012 Greek debt crisis) (T-79/13)

In its Judgment of 7 October 2015 in Accorinti and Others v ECB, T-79/13, EU:T:2015:756 (not available in English, but a press release is), the General Court of the Court of Justice of the European Union (GC) dismissed a claim for compensation against the European Central Bank (ECB) as a result of the 53.5% haircut that private investors in Greek sovereign debt suffered in 2012. 

Indeed, the GC ruled that the loss suffered in 2012 by the private holders of Greek debt instruments in connection with the restructuring of the public debt of the Greek State is not attributable to the ECB, but to the economic risks ordinarily inherent in financial sector activities. The claimants had submitted three main grounds for illegality of the ECB's participation in the restructuring of Greek debt: 
  1. breach of the legitimate expectations allegedly created by the general declarations of the subsequent ECB Presidents Mr Trichet and Mr Draghi and, in particular, the open and repeated opposition of the ECB to a restructuring of the Greek public debt and a Greek selective default, which eventually happened; 
  2. breach of the principle of equal treatment as a result of the selective nature of the haircut, which affected private investors but not the ECB that also held Greek public debt at the time; and 
  3. improper exercise of competences linked to the objective of safeguarding price stability and the objective relating to the sound management of monetary policy as per Article 127 TFEU. 

In claimants' view, such illegalities (or any of them) would suffice to engage the non-contractual liability of the ECB under Article 340 TFEU. The GC dismissed the action in full. The arguments of the GC are interesting, particularly because they create a clear-cut restriction on this sort of arguments to seek liability derived from macroeconomic policy intervention. Specifically, as the press release indicates, 

'the GC holds that the private investors cannot rely on the principle of the protection of legitimate expectations or on the principle of legal certainty in a field such as that of monetary policy, the objective of which involves constant adjustment to reflect changes in economic circumstances. The private investors were deemed to have knowledge of the highly unstable economic circumstances which determined the fluctuation in the value of the Greek securities. They could therefore not exclude the risk of a restructuring of the Greek public debt, given the differences of view prevailing in that regard within the Eurosystem and in the other institutions involved (Commission, IMF and ECB). The Court then states, that the press releases and the public statements of some ECB staff members were of a general nature and came from an institution which did not have the power to decide on a possible restructuring of the public debt of a Member State. In addition, those press releases and statements did not include specific and unconditional assurances from authorised and reliable sources, capable, for that reason, of giving rise to legitimate expectations' (emphasis added) 
Moreover, there is an obiter dictum that I find particularly interesting in paragraph 82, where the GC stresses that the investors acted in a way that displays a clear risk-taking strategy (if not pure speculation), which reduces their ability to rely on arguments ultimately based on good faith, such as legitimate expectations.

Regarding the second line of argument, in a quite measured and detailed analysis of the applicability of the principle of equality to the private investors and the ECB (which, in my view, could have been dispensed with in much less space than paras 85-103 in view of its prima facie ludicrousness), and as the press release also summarises, the GC 
'considers that the general principle of equal treatment cannot apply, since the private savers or creditors and the ECB (as well as NCBs [national central banks] of the Eurosystem) were not in a comparable situation: confronted with the Greek financial crisis and the exceptional circumstances attached to it, the ECB was exclusively guided by public interest objectives, such as, in particular, the objective of safeguarding price stability and the objective relating to the sound management of monetary policy. By contrast, the private investors or savers acted in pursuit of a purely private interest, namely obtaining a maximum return on their investments' (emphasis added). 
There is another obiter dictum (?) bit of the Judgment that I find particularly interesting in paragraphs 99-103, where the GC discusses a sub-argument linked to equality of treatment, whereby the claimants had submitted that a general pari passu clause [ie an obligation to receive the same treatment as other creditor holding the same type of securities] would have prevented the ECB from avoiding the effects of the haircut suffered by private investors. In that regard, the GC rejects the existence of a general pari passu clause under EU law (para 99) and, even in stronger terms, determines that
if a rule that would impose the pari passu implied an obligation to treat all creditors equally without having regard to the various situations in which they find themselves and, in particular, on the one hand, private investors and, on the other hand, the central banks of the Eurosystem acting in the exercise of the duties conferred upon them by Article 127 TFEU and Article 18 of the [ECB] Statute, the recognition of such a rule in the legal order of the Union might be contrary to the principle of equal treatment (para 100, own translation from Spanish and emphasis added).
Finally, the GC also rejects the arguments based on the improper exercise of monetary policy competences, largely because they were founded on the same reasons that it had already rejected under the previous heads of claims.

Overall, the Accorinti and Others v ECB Judgment is interesting because it recasts the relevant case law of the CJEU in terms of EU Institutions' liability and applies it in a way that consolidates the hands-off approach that the CJEU seems to have definitely adopted to issues of macroeconomic policy and monetary stability of the Euro (along the lines of Pringle, C-370/12, EU:C:2012:756). 

It also sends out a very clear message that the Court remains committed to avoid creating a legal framework where EU Institutions are the object of spurious litigation. This is very clear from para 69 of the Judgment, where the GC stressed that
regarding the regulatory activities of the institutions, in which the adoption by the ECB of acts of general application ... can be included, the Court held that the restrictive construction of the responsibility of the Union in the exercise of its regulatory activity is explained, firstly, by the fact that the exercise of the legislative function, even when there is a mechanism of judicial review of the legality of the acts, should not be hindered by the prospect of actions for damages every time the general interest of the Union requires the adoption of policy measures that may adversely affect the interests of individuals and, [secondly], by the fact that, in a legislative context characterized by the existence of broad discretion that is essential for the implementation of a policy of the Union, the latter shall not incur liability unless the institution concerned has exceeded, manifestly and seriously, the [limits for the] exercise of its powers (see, to that effect, the judgment of 9 September 2008, FIAMM and other / Council and Commission, C-120/06 P and C-121/06 P, Rec, EU: C: 2008: 476, paragraph 174) (para 69, own translation from Spanish and emphasis added).
In my view, the Judgment and the line of case law it consolidates has the advantage of establishing a clear red line that should exclude future litigation. It should thus be welcome.

A very expensive slip of the pen? GC takes hard line in assessment of debriefing letter and awards compensation for loss of opportunity (T-299/11)

In its Judgment of 7 October 2015 in European Dynamics Luxembourg and Others v OHIM, T-299/11, EU:T:2015:757, the General Court of the Court of Justice of the European Union (GC) has once again revised the conclusion of framework agreements that include a cascade mechanism for the allocation of call-off contracts within the framework (see previous case Evropaïki Dynamiki v EASA, T-297/09, EU:T:2015:184 and comments here).

On this occasion, the GC considered that OHIM infringed the applicable procurement rules and determined that European Dynamics is entitled to compensation for the loss of an opportunity to be awarded the framework contract as the contractor ranked first in the cascade. Looking at the reasoning of the GC can be of interest.

In the Judgment, the GC finds that OHIM incurred in several substantive and formal errors in the evaluation of tenders leading up to the eventually quashed award decision. In my view, some of the substantive claims result from the not very careful drafting of the debriefing letter sent by OHIM to European Dynamics, which is very unfortunate. The point that I consider more troublesome from a practical perspective is as follows.

In the tender documentation, and amongst (very!) many other technical issues, tenderers were informed that part of the evaluation would rely on their project management strategy. As the GC explains (T-299/11, para 6), this was formulated in award criterion 1, according to which
[Award] Criterion 1: based on its methodology and experience, the tenderer must present the tasks and activities he/she would perform in terms of project management. This includes in particular (but not exclusively):

a. Progress control [that is to say checking the progress of the work];
b. Issue management process;
c. Change management process;
d. Escalations;
e. Lessons learnt programme;
f. Communications plan;
g. Deliverable acceptance procedures
(maximum 40 points with a minimum threshold of 20 points);
European Dynamics did not receive the highest score under this criterion. When it requested further details of the evaluation under criterion 1 from OHIM, it received a letter whereby it was explained that "the offers with very good or excellent criterion 1 ... “Identified change management and communication as the two most essential tasks for the success of the project”" (T-299/11, paras 23 and 41).


On this particular point, and in view of this (possibly less than careful) drafting of the debriefing letter, European Dynamics complained that it was not clear "from the tender specifications that the two sub-criteria ‘change management’ and ‘communication’ were, in OHIM’s view, the ‘most essential’. Accordingly, the contracting authority introduced, a posteriori, a new criterion and gave a new weighting to those sub-criteria" (T-299/11, para 42, emphasis added).

The GC upheld this complaint of European Dynamics with the following reasoning:
48 ... the Court finds that the applicants rightly argue that the contracting authority indeed gave to the sub-criteria ‘change management’ and ‘communication’ a more significant weight than the other criteria set out in the first award criterion. The reasons unambiguously set out in OHIM’s letter ... according to which the bids from the other successful tenderers ‘identified change management and communication as the two most essential tasks for the success of the project’, cannot be understood otherwise. It demonstrates that the contracting authority endorsed the approach proposed by the other successful tenderers on the basis of a weighting of those sub-criteria which is not clear from the wording of the first award criterion ... the contracting authority cannot apply a weighting of sub-criteria which it has not previously brought to the tenderers’ attention (see, to that effect, judgment of 24 January 2008 in Lianakis and Others, C-532/06, ECR, EU:C:2008:40, paragraph 38).
49 In that regard, first, it should be noted that the ‘change management’ and ‘communications plan’ comprised only two sub-criteria among a set of seven sub-criteria which were listed at the same level and on a non-exclusive basis under the first award criterion, namely, progress control, issue management process, change management process, escalations, lessons learnt programme, communications plan and deliverable acceptance procedures, and in respect of which the contracting authority intended to award a maximum number of 40 points ... Nor is it apparent from the wording of that criterion or other relevant parts of the tender specifications that the contracting authority intended, where appropriate and for specific undisclosed reasons, to afford a different weight to those sub-criteria for the presentation of the project presented in Work Hypothesis No 1, or even to assign, when evaluating the bids submitted in the light of the first award criterion, higher or lower scores depending on whether those bids focused on either one or the other of those sub-criteria. That is particularly so, in respect of the sub-criteria ‘change management’ and ‘communications plan’, in respect of which it was not stated in the tender specifications that the contracting authority considered that they represented ‘the two most essential tasks for the success of the project’.
50 Second, in accordance with the general explanations, in the tender specifications, of the requirements which have to be fulfilled by the tenderers, those tenderers were invited to present ‘the tasks and activities to be executed to manage and successfully achieve the project presented in Work Hypothesis No 1’ which were set out in Annex 18 to the tender specifications and covered the establishment by OHIM of a ‘project to build an information system’. As a result, the description in the bids submitted of the tasks and the activities related to the various sub-criteria under the first award criterion referred necessarily to that project which was by definition the same for all tenderers.
51 In those circumstances, the phrase ‘identified change management and communication as the two most essential tasks for the success of the project’ can be understood only as comprising an absolute and general value judgment on the particular importance of the sub-criteria ‘change management’ and ‘communications plan’ (‘the most essential’) as part of the project envisaged by OHIM under Work Hypothesis No 1 (‘for the success of the project’), of which the bids of the other successful tenderers would have taken account, and, conversely, as a criticism of the first applicant’s bid for failing to have followed an approach similar to that proposed by those successful tenderers to that end.
52 In that regard, OHIM is not justified in claiming, in essence, that the reasoning referred to above should be understood as a value judgment on the sufficient quality of the bids of the other successful tenderers which was based on the identification of two specific sub-criteria, namely ‘change management’ and ‘communications’, since that judgment is not severable from a specifically abstract and preliminary upgrading of the sub-criteria as compared to the other five sub-criteria listed in the first award criterion. Moreover, if only for the reasons set out in paragraphs 48 to 51 above, it does not appear credible that the contracting authority failed to assign a specific number of points from the total of 40 points available to the various sub-criteria which were referred to therein ...
53 Thus, it must be concluded that the negative comparative judgment made by the contracting authority on the first applicant’s bid on that point has no support in the wording of the first award criterion. In particular, the weighting underlying that judgment did not appear to be sufficiently clear, precise and unequivocal from that criterion to enable all reasonably well-informed and normally diligent tenderers to understand their precise scope and to interpret them in the same manner. By applying, contrary to the requirements arising from the case-law ... a weighting of the various sub-criteria within that award criterion which was not provided for by the tender specifications or communicated in advance to the tenderers, OHIM therefore breached, to the detriment of the applicants, the principles of equal opportunities and transparency (T-299/11, paras 48-53, emphasis added).
Technically, the GC's argument is rather solid and, at least at a conceptual level, not much can be criticised. However, given its strong reliance on the specific wording of the letter and arguments concerning implicit underlying sub-criteria and their presumed weightings, it does not seem very persuasive because a more careful and nuanced drafting of the debriefing letter would have completely changed the assessment. 

Indeed, a worrying potential implication of the European Dynamics v OHIM Judgment is that it creates a very powerful incentive for contracting authorities to be disingenuous in their debriefing letters and, where several sub-criteria are listed in the tender documentation, to include references to all of them in the qualitative explanations of the superiority of the tenders chosen for award. 

Such 'holistic' approach to debriefing letter drafting would reduce the quality of the information disclosed--both for the tenderer (who is in any case probably not really seeking to understand the actual superiority of competing bids, but simply a way to litigate) and  also for the reviewing court (which will be receiving more general statements).

As an example, under the circumstances of the case, a debriefing letter with a statement such as ''the offers with very good or excellent criterion 1 ... [struck an appropriate balance between competing implementation needs and provided realistic strategies regarding] most essential tasks for the success of the project [including in particular (but not exclusively): progress control; issue management; change management; escalations; lessons learnt programme; communications plan; and deliverable acceptance procedures]”, would probably have sufficed to nullify European Dynamics' claim and, in my view, would not necessarily infringe the duty to provide reasons as it relates to qualitative technical assessments were technical discretion is rather wide (unless a disproportionately high burden of motivation was imposed, which cannot be completely discarded in view of previous decisions of the GC). In any case, this is just a rough and fast drafting and more considerate wording would probably strike a better balance between provision of reasons and avoidance of litigation.

However, such a debriefing letter would not be as good as the one provided by OHIM in the case at hand, where it naively (?) indicated the actual reasons it had considered to provide better quality management strategies, as it tried to explain to an unimpressed GC (para 52 above)--or, more simply, did not put a great deal of thought on the specific wording of the contentious paragraph of the debriefing letter, which it merely intended to provide qualitative feedback of a general nature. Thus, the European Dynamics v OHIM Judgment puts even more pressure on contracting authorities to be extremely careful in their debriefing (see here and here) and makes this task a nightmarish phase of the procurement process.

Given that such situations carry significant financial consequences (in this case, of an uncertain magnitude because the GC ordered OHIM and European Dynamics to agree between themselves the proper amount of compensation; see paras 149-157), this is an area of procurement practice where contracting authorities would be well advised to start investing more resources. 

At the same time, it is necessary to promote a change of mentality in courts and review bodies dealing with this type of cases, as decisions such as the GC Judgment in European Dynamics v OHIM clearly establish strong financial incentives to litigate and the position of the contracting authorities dealing with complex technical issues requiring qualitative/subjective assessments may be excessively weakened by taking such a hard line in the assessment of debriefing documentation.

Should Damages in Public Procurement Hinge on Disappointed Bidders’ Commercial Interests? A Comment on Energy Solutions EU Ltd v Nuclear Decommissioning Authority



This comment has been previously published in eutopialaw. I am thankful to Christopher Brown for having brought this stimulating case to my attention.

In its recent Judgment of 23 January 2015 in Energy Solutions EU Ltd v Nuclear Decommissioning Authority [2015] EWHC 73 (TCC), the High Court ruled on a preliminary issue in a public procurement dispute and held that the review court has no discretion (not) to grant damages for losses resulting from a breach of the public procurement rules. In my view, the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment should be criticised at least for two reasons: firstly, because it misinterprets the EU rules on public procurement remedies and their link with the general principle of State liability for breaches of EU law; and secondly, because it creates an analytical framework based on the commercial decisions of disappointed bidders that would result in excessive (strategic) claims for damages. Moreover, the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment sheds light on an important shortcoming of the system of public procurement remedies that is perpetuated under the recently adopted Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (SI 2015/102). This comment addresses these issues in turn.

Background

The dispute arises after Energy Solutions (as part of a bidding consortium, but that is not relevant for our purposes) was not chosen as the winning bidder in a tender for a nuclear waste management contract with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). After expressing its disagreement with the award decision and seeking additional information in the ensuing debriefing process, Energy Solutions eventually challenged the tender procedure within the 30-day limit applicable under reg.47D(2) of the applicable Public Contracts Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/5, as amended, primarily by SI2009/2992). By the time the challenge was effected, NDA had already entered into a contract with the winning bidder. Energy Solutions sought compensation for the damages it alleged to have suffered as a result of the improper conduct of the tender procedure

NDA tried to bar the damages action by arguing that a failure to challenge the award decision within the 10-day standstill period provided for under reg.32(3) Public Contracts Regulations 2006 (which could have prevented it from entering into the contract) broke the causal link between any breach of the applicable procurement rules and the ensuing damages (which, If any, would then derive from the tardiness of the challenge). NDA basically claimed that having foregone the possibility to prevent the award of the contract to another tenderer by activating the suspension foreseen in reg. 47G Public Contracts Regulations 2006, Energy Solutions had also lost the possibility to seek damages compensation. In support of that position, NDA submitted that, under reg.47J(2)(c) Public Contracts Regulations 2006, the review court retained discretion (not) to award damages resulting from a breach of public procurement rules in circumstances such as those in the case (ie the lost opportunity of litigating within the standstill period).

The High Court ruled against NDA on both points. Edwards-Stuart J found no basis for the

submission that any award of damages is dependent on the level of gravity of the breach, or any other such factor, and thus dependent on an exercise of judicial "discretion" or judgment, or whether, absent any failure to mitigate its loss, having proved a breach of the [public procurement rules] a claimant is entitled to anything other than damages that should be assessed by reference to ordinary principles. It may well be that the claimant's conduct will have been such that the court will be very reluctant to make any assumptions in its favour in relation to damages, but that is simply an aspect of the usual approach of the court to the assessment of damages (para 86).

As mentioned above, this finding is open to criticism, both for its inconsistency with EU law and because it creates an analytical framework that may result in excessive claims for damages. Each of these issues is addressed in turn. The problem derived from the diverging duration of the standstill period and the time limit for the challenge of award decisions is discussed last, as it also affects the brand new Public Contracts Regulations 2015.

The improper conceptualisation of the damages remedy with an EU law origin

In order to reach a conclusion on the discretionary or automatic nature of the damages remedy under reg.47J(2)(c) Public Contracts Regulations 2006, Edwards-Stuart J embarked on an assessment of the original provision that this regulation transposes, that is, art.2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665/EC (as amended by Directive 2007/66/EC), as well as its interpreting case law (primarily, Combinatie Spijker Infrabouw-De Jonge Konstruktie and Others, C-568/08, EU:C:2010:751). However, in my view, his Judgment fails to extract the adequate conclusions.

It is worth stressing that, as stressed in paragraph 87 of Spijker (and repeated in para 69 of Energy Solutions v NDA), art.2(1)(c) of Directive 89/665 “gives concrete expression to the principle of State liability for loss and damage caused to individuals as a result of breaches of EU law for which the State can be held responsible” (emphasis added). In my view, Edwards-Stuart J completely misses the point when he tries to distinguish the Energy Solutions v NDA case by stating that

This is not a claim against a Member State for a breach of EU law which was intended to confer a right upon a person such as the Claimant. This is a claim brought by a corporate body against a national public body under the Regulations, an English national provision [sic] (para 83, emphasis added).

If nothing else, this position simply misses the entire EU law doctrine of supremacy and direct effect of Directives (Van Duyn v Home Office, C-41/74, EU:C:1974:133) and the duty of consistent interpretation (Marleasing v Comercial Internacional de Alimentación, C-106/89, EU:C:1990:395). Moreover, it is unnecessary for the analysis the High Court needed to complete in the case at hand. In that regard, it is also worth stressing that, as clearly established by the Court of Justice in Spijker (and repeated in para 70 of Energy Solutions v NDA)

In the absence of EU provisions in that area, it is for the legal order of each Member State to determine the criteria on the basis of which damage arising from an infringement of EU law on the award of public contracts must be determined and estimated … In the absence of any provision of EU law in that area, it is for the internal legal order of each Member State, once those conditions have been complied with, to determine the criteria on the basis of which the damage arising from an infringement of EU law on the award of public contracts must be determined and estimated, provided the principles of equivalence and effectiveness are complied with (Spijker, paras 90 and 92, emphasis added).

Hence, in order to stress the point of procedural autonomy (subject only to equivalence and effectiveness), Edwards-Stuart J did not need to take the difficult (and unacceptable) position of trying to decouple Energy Solutions’ claim from its obvious EU origin by rejecting its true essence.

Following on this aspect of the Judgment, it is also important to stress that counsel properly identified a further development of relevance in terms of assessing the effectiveness requirement. Indeed, in Danske Slagterier (C-445/06, EU:C:2009:178), the Court of Justice issued additional guidance on the possibility of imposing certain duties on disappointed tenderers before they can claim compensation for damages. That case concerned a German rule whereby reparation for loss or damage cannot be obtained by an injured party that has wilfully or negligently failed to utilise an available legal remedy (§839(3) BGB). The dispute concerned precisely the level of diligence that could be required under EU law from a claimant in damages that had forgone other (theoretically) available remedies before claiming for compensation.

In a situation that is clearly comparable to the one in Energy Solutions v NDA (as implicitly acknowledged by Edwards-Stuart J in para 73), the Court of Justice ruled that

it is a general principle common to the legal systems of the Member States that the injured party must show reasonable diligence in limiting the extent of the loss or damage, or risk having to bear the loss or damage himself … It would, however, be contrary to the principle of effectiveness to oblige injured parties to have recourse systematically to all the legal remedies available to them even if that would give rise to excessive difficulties or could not reasonably be required of them … [Union] law does not preclude the application of a national rule such as that laid down in para. 839(3) of the BGB, provided that utilisation of the legal remedy in question can reasonably be required of the injured party. It is for the referring court to determine … whether that is so (paras 61 to 64).

In my view, this provides the proper framework for the analysis of Energy Solutions v NDA, as it places the High Court in the position of assessing whether requiring claimants to challenge award decisions within the 10-day standstill period is reasonable and can become a pre-condition for their damages claims, despite the fact that the applicable regulations provide them with a 30-day period to do so. That is the point of “discretion” (rectius, non-automaticity) in the award of damages derived from public procurement infringements on which the parties disagreed, and one to which I will return below.

However, Edwards-Stuart J insisted (para 78) on his view that the domestic remedy has nothing to do with the general principle of State liability under EU law (in a frontal disregard of Spijker para 87), which excludes the applicability of any guidance ultimately based on the State liability doctrine (Brasserie du pêcheur and Factortame, C-46/93, EU:C:1996:79). In my view, this creates significant confusion and implies a breach of EU law within the UK legal system (which could, if not remedied, end up resulting in liability under Köbler, C-224/01, EU:C:2003:513).

The improper focus on the commercial choices or gambles of the disappointed bidder, which could trigger excessive litigation seeking procurement damages compensation

My second criticism of the Judgment in Energy Solutions v NDA derives from the isolated and commercially-led analysis of the system of remedies provided by Directive 89/665, as transposed by the Public Contracts Regulations 2006 (and now the Public Contracts Regulations 2015). The point of departure for the analysis of the remedies system and, particularly, the granting of damages, needs to rest on two basic points. 

The first one is a point of law. Damages are conceptualised as an ancillary remedy under Directive 89/665 [for discussion see S Treumer, ‘Damages for breach of the EC public procurement rules - changes in European regulation and practice’ (2006) 17(4) Public Procurement Law Review 159-170]. In my view, this is particularly clear after the 2007 reforms [similarly, S Arrowsmith, The Law of Public and Utilities Procurement. Regulation in the EU and the UK, Vol. 1, 3rd edn (London, Sweet & Maxwell, 2014) 178; see also R Caranta, The Comparatist’s Lens on Remedies in Public Procurement (Istituto Universitario di Studi Europei, WP 2011-1) 7-8], which aimed at ensuring the effectiveness of the public procurement rules through stronger requirements of ineffectiveness of contracts concluded in their breach. This is the proper interpretation of the ensemble of remedies established under the EU rules and, in particular, given that art.2e(2) in fine Directive 89/665 expressly indicates that “[t]he award of damages does not constitute an appropriate penalty”.

Hence, damages are not an alternative or substitute remedy for the ineffectiveness of illegally awarded contracts (which can only be replaced with proper penalties imposed on the infringing contracting authority where public interest mandates the continuation of the illegally-awarded contract). Moreover, damages are not a free standing remedy, as they must be based on a (sufficiently serious) breach of procurement rules, which necessarily carries the consequence of either ineffectiveness of the contract or penalties for the contracting authority. This is also very clear from the wording of reg.47J Public Contracts Regulations 2006, which requires the review court to make findings on ineffectiveness and civil penalties, while it (simple?) authorises the court to make findings regarding damages compensation (this is discussed in paras 62ff of the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment, but in a way that goes against the literal reading of the provision).

The second point is a point of general policy based on economic incentives. In my view, disappointed tenderers will always have an incentive to seek damages compensation. Once they have participated in a tender procedure and not been awarded the contract, it is more favourable for them to seek damages (particularly if loss of profits is recoverable) than to seek the specific performance of the tender procedure being brought back to the point previous to the relevant infringement, or even the award of the contract as such. Once they are put in a position where they have an automatic claim for damages based on the infringement of the procurement rules, they will always prefer its exercise to any alternative remedy that either does not secure them the contract (because it forces a re-tendering) or awards them the contract (as getting direct financial compensation for the lost profits is better than having to – properly – execute a contract in order to create them). 

In short, creating an automatic right to damages compensation for breach of public procurement rules would become a ‘winning lottery ticket’ for disappointed bidders. It is simple to see how such unbalanced rights to remedies would trigger excessive litigation. From a policy perspective, then, it should be required that contractors only be entitled to damages when a specific, non-financial remedy is not available (ie, when the illegally awarded contract must be protected in view of a sufficient public interest).

From this perspective, it is hard to understand how Edwards-Stuart J can consider that

If the claimant is seeking to have the award of the contract suspended, then it must start proceedings within the standstill period or, in any event, within the 30 day period and before the award of the contract. However, if the claimant is merely seeking damages, then it need only start proceedings within the 30 day period. I do not see any basis for treating these two remedies as being of different importance: that depends on a claimant's circumstances and what it is seeking to achieve - the Regulations give it a choice (para 79, emphasis added).

The relevant point, in my view, is that the Regulations do not give a choice to the Court (not the claimant) in terms of the content of the challenge against an award decision. If the Court finds that there is an infringement, it must impose the relevant remedies (not only damages), as clearly established in reg.47J Public Contracts Regulations 2006 for cases in which the contract has already been entered into (and in relatively less stringent terms, in reg. 47I Public Contracts Regulations 2006 when the contract has still not been entered into). Hence, regardless of whether the claimant complements the claim for damages with a claim for ineffectiveness or not, the Court must always consider the possibility and desirability of setting the illegally-awarded contract aside. Consequently, there should actually not be any difference, from the point of view of the Court, between the two sets of remedies indicated above. Maybe in blunter terms, under the applicable Regulations, a claimant is never allowed to actually only seek damages because the Court is never allowed to only rule on damages.

Hence, considerations such as those developed in paragraphs 87 to 91 of the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment must be rejected, since they rely on the consideration that a claimant can legitimately conclude “for various commercial reasons, that damages would be an adequate remedy in all the circumstances” (para 87, emphasis added), and that this needs to be the guiding principle in the construction of the system of remedies for public procurement infringements.

I of course acknowledge that this is an approach that implicitly recognises that disappointed bidders do not challenge award decisions only in their own interest, but also exercise a (residual, implicit) ‘general attorney-like’ function aimed at catching and sanctioning infringements of (EU) public procurement law—in a sort of private enforcement akin but different from that developed for the equivalent competition law rules. However, I struggle to see how the system of remedies could be developed in satisfactory way exclusively considering disappointed bidders’ commercial interests.

The source of the problems: diverging time-limits beyond mandatory standstill periods

The final issue that bears comment (and much further thought) refers to the existence of time-limits for the challenge of procurement decisions that reach beyond mandatory standstill periods. The situation created under the Public Contracts Regulations 2006 has just been perpetuated under the recently adopted Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which regs.87 and 92(2) perpetuate the problem of a general time-limit for the start of proceedings that exceeds the mandatory 10-day standstill period. As Edwards-Stuart J rightly pointed out in the Energy Solutions v NDA

the Regulations permit an unsuccessful tenderer to start proceedings after the expiry of the standstill period, and therefore at a time after which the authority may have entered into the contract with the successful tenderer: indeed, the Regulations expressly contemplate this eventuality. I therefore have considerable difficulty in seeing how a decision not to start proceedings within the standstill period could be said to be unreasonable. But, as I have already said, this is a question of fact (para 54).

Hence, the problem that is (now, clearly) on the table is that the part of the time-limit for the start of proceedings that runs beyond the duration of the mandatory standstill creates space for strategic litigation, particularly if coupled with the ‘automaticity’ (or lack of discretion) for the award of damages resulting from a breach of public procurement rules discussed above. There are two possible options. On the one hand, to overrule Energy Solutions v NDA and go back to a Spijker-compliant interpretation of the Public Contracts Regulations (2006 and 2015), so that a judgment of ‘reasonableness’ of the time at which the proceedings are started is conducted by the court on a case by case basis. This option creates legal uncertainty and may trigger further litigation at EU level. On the other hand, to amend the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 so that the standstill period and the time-limit to initiate actions coincide. In that case, I would expect the standstill to be extended, rather than the time-limit to be reduced. One way or the other, though, the system needs fixing in order to close the gaps that can now trigger excessive (strategic) litigation.

It's for the GC to decide, but it's not ok: CJEU rules on 'excessive duration' of competition law litigation (C-40/12 P)


In a batch of impatiently expected Judgments of 26 November 2012, the CJEU has ruled on the procedural and substantial rules applicable to a claim that (competition law) litigation before the General Court was of an 'excessive duration' and, consequently, breached Article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. In my view, this is another instance of a rather convoluted legal construction by the CJEU whereby it rejects its jurisdiction (on formal points), but actually addresses the substantial points in a way that leaves no room whatsoever for the GC when the matter is presented before it for a fresh consideraton--and, consequently, raises the question whether the system is sensibly designed to begin with...
 
In its Judgment in case C-40/12 P Gascogne Sack Deutschland (anciennement Sachsa Verpackung) v Commission, the CJEU has clearly indicated that
89 [...] the sanction for a breach, by a Court of the European Union, of its obligation under the second paragraph of Article 47 of the Charter to adjudicate on the cases before it within a reasonable time must be an action for damages brought before the General Court, since such an action constitutes an effective remedy.

90 It follows that a claim for compensation for the damage caused by the failure by the General Court to adjudicate within a reasonable time may not be made directly to the Court of Justice in the context of an appeal, but must be brought before the General Court itself.

91 As regards the criteria for assessing whether the General Court has observed the reasonable time principle, it must be borne in mind that the reasonableness of the period for delivering judgment is to be appraised in the light of the circumstances specific to each case, such as the complexity of the case and the conduct of the parties (see, in particular, Der Grüne Punkt – Duales System Deutschland v Commission, paragraph 181 and the case-law cited).

92 The Court has held in that regard that the list of relevant criteria is not exhaustive and that the assessment of the reasonableness of a period does not require a systematic examination of the circumstances of the case in the light of each of them, where the duration of the proceedings appears justified in the light of one of them. Thus, the complexity of the case or the dilatory conduct of the applicant may be deemed to justify a duration which is prima facie too long (see, in particular, Der Grüne Punkt – Duales System Deutschland v Commission, paragraph 182 and the case-law cited).

93 In examining those criteria, it must be borne in mind that, in the case of proceedings concerning infringement of competition rules, the fundamental requirement of legal certainty on which economic operators must be able to rely and the aim of ensuring that competition is not distorted in the internal market are of considerable importance not only for an applicant itself and its competitors but also for third parties, in view of the large number of persons concerned and the financial interests involved (see, in particular, Der Grüne Punkt – Duales System Deutschland v Commission, paragraph 186 and the case-law cited).

94 It will also be for the General Court to assess both the actual existence of the harm alleged and the causal connection between that harm and the excessive length of the legal proceedings in dispute by examining the evidence submitted for that purpose.

95 In that regard, it should be noted that, in an action for damages based on a breach by the General Court of the second paragraph of Article 47 of the Charter, in so far as it failed to have regard to the requirement that the case be dealt with within a reasonable time, the General Court must, in accordance with the second paragraph of Article 340 TFEU, take into consideration the general principles applicable in the legal systems of the Member States for actions based on similar breaches. In that context, the General Court must, in particular, ascertain whether it is possible to identify, in addition to any material loss, any other type of harm sustained by the party affected by the excessive period, which should, where appropriate, be suitably compensated.

96 It is therefore for the General Court, which has jurisdiction under Article 256(1) TFEU, to determine such claims for damages, sitting in a different composition from that which heard the dispute giving rise to the procedure whose duration is criticised and applying the criteria set out in paragraphs 91 to 95 above
(C-40/12 P at paras 89-96, emphasis added).
So far, the general framework depicted by the CJEU makes sense and, even if it creates a potential problem of conflict of interest derived from the 'self-assessment' required from the GC (despite its seating in a different composition), the remedy is clearly outlined and the material or substantive conditions that should be taken into account are also spelled out in a relatively easy to apply test (although some deference towards lengthy competition litigation seems to be readable between the lines).
 
However, the temptation ends up being too strong and the CJEU, maybe aware of the intractability of that conflict of interest, cannot refrain itself from actually settling the matter (despite concluding it has to reject the ground for appeal!). Hence, the CJEU carries on to make clear that

97 That said, it must be stated that the length of the proceedings before the General Court, which amounted to approximately 5 years and 9 months, cannot be justified by any of the particular circumstances of the present case.

98 It is apparent, in particular, that the period between the end of the written procedure, when the Commission’s rejoinder was lodged in February 2007, and the opening, in December 2010, of the oral procedure lasted for approximately 3 years and 10 months. The length of that period cannot be explained by the circumstances of the case, whether it be the complexity of the dispute, the conduct of the parties or supervening procedural matters.

99 As regards the complexity of the dispute, it is apparent from examining the action brought by the appellant, as summarised in paragraphs 12 and 13 above, that, while requiring a detailed examination, the pleas relied on did not present any particular difficulties. Although it is true that around 15 addressees of the contested decision brought actions for its annulment before the General Court, that fact could not prevent it from scrutinising the documents in the case and preparing for the oral procedure within a period of less than 3 years and 10 months.

100 It must be pointed out that, during that period, the procedure was not interrupted or delayed by the adoption of any measures of organisation of procedure by the General Court.

101 As regards the conduct of the parties and supervening procedural matters, the fact that the appellant requested, in October 2010, the reopening of the written procedure cannot justify the period of 3 years and 8 months which had already elapsed since it was closed. In addition, as the Advocate General observed in point 134 of her Opinion, the fact that the appellant was notified in December 2010 that there would be a hearing in February 2011 shows that that procedural matter had only a minimal effect on the overall length of proceedings, or even no effect at all.

102 In the light of the foregoing, it must be found that the procedure in the General Court breached the second paragraph of Article 47 of the Charter in that it failed to comply with the requirement that it adjudicate within a reasonable time, which constitutes a sufficiently serious breach of a rule of law that is intended to confer rights on individuals (Case C-352/98 P Bergaderm and Goupil v Commission [2000] ECR I-5291, paragraph 42).

103 It is, however, clear from the considerations set out at paragraphs 81 to 90 above that the fourth ground of appeal must be rejected
(sic) (C-40/12 P at paras 97-103, emphasis added). 
In my view, even if there is no question that the formal treatment of the claim for damages (ie the ground for appeal) is correct, the fact that the CJEU felt the urge to settle the matter from a substantive perspective shows that the attribution of the competence to hear cases concerned with the excessive duration of litigation before the GC to the GC itself (albeit in a different seating) makes poor sense and is likely to result in almost 100% of cases in a further appeal before the CJEU.
 
To be fair, if the CJEU assumed the competence from the beginning, other problems derived from a single-step or one-shot system where the claims would be shielded from potential appeals would also arise. So, it looks like we may be facing one of those areas where a clear limitation of the institutional design of the EU Courts seems apparent and where pressure for the future potential referral of the cases to the Strasbourg Court may be felt.
 
However, as indicated yesterday when commenting a timely editorial opinion of Advocate General Sharpston (here), it may well be that the granting of excessive procedural rights to competition law defendants end up in an unmanageable workload for the EU Courts (as well as for the European Court of Human Rights) and, consequently, a deeper revision of the system seems necessary [see my further developed aruments in The EU’s Accession to the ECHR and Due Process Rights in EU Competition Law Matters: Nothing New Under the Sun?].

GC (T-668/11): 'mere' non-compliance with formal #publicprocurement rules does not trigger liability for loss of profits

In its Judgment of 6 June 2013 in case T-668/11 VIP Car Solutions v Parliament II, the General Court of the European Union (EU) has addressed the issue whether non-compliance with the duties of transparency and motivation by a contracting authority can generate a right to claim damages for disappointed bidders and, more specifically, whether they would be entitled to claim loss of profit compensation.

In this clear Judgment, the GC does not exclude that possibility as a matter of principle, but it sets a very clear line of analysis of the causality required between the lack of motivation or failure to disclose certain information and the damages claimed by disappointed bidders--which makes this type of claims very difficult to succeed. 

In the Judgment, the GC has stressed that:
In this regard, it should be noted that it is true that the Court held that the [contested] decision should be annulled on the grounds, first, that the Parliament had violated the obligation to disclose the price proposed by the successful bidder and, secondly, that the decision was vitiated by an inadequate statement of reasons. However, it is clear that the non-disclosure of the price and the lack of motivation do not establish that the award of the contract to another tenderer was a fault, or that there is a causal link between this fact and the loss claimed by the applicant (see, to that effect, the Judgment of 25 February 2003, Renco / Council T-4/01, Rec. p. II-171, paragraph 89, and of 20 October 2011, Alfastar Benelux / Council T-57/09, not published in the ECR, paragraph 49). Indeed, there is nothing to suggest that the Parliament should award the contract in question to the applicant if the original decision had been sufficiently motivated or if the Parliament had disclosed the price of the successful bidder. It follows that the claim for compensation for the alleged damage suffered as a result of the first decision must be rejected as unfounded in so far as it is based on inadequate reasoning of that decision and the non-disclosure of the price proposed by the winning bidder (T-668/11 at para 38, own translation from French, emphasis added).
In view of this analysis of strict causality, which is appropriate, it seems clear that disappointed bidders that succeed in challenging public procurement decisions exclusively on the grounds of lack of compliance with transparency obligations and the duty to provide reasons are likely to only be entitled to claim legal costs and any other expenses related to the challenge of the award procedure. 

This should be welcome, despite the fact that it may reduce the incentives for disappointed bidders to challenge procedurally incorrect public procurement decisions because, unless they can prove that there has been a material (in terms of substantive) breach and that, but for that illegality they should have been awarded the contract, it is very unlikely that they can obtain any compensation for their efforts. 

This may (marginally?) diminish the effectiveness of challenge procedures (at least where no material rule has been breached), but an excessively generous rule that awarded damages exclusively due to 'mere' procedural shortcomings would generate a perverse incentive towards excessive litigation. This may justify the need for stronger mechanisms of public oversight, as it seems clear that the incentives for disappointed bidders to act 'in the public interest' have just been delimited in a proper, but narrow, manner.

#CJEU confirms that #IPlaw violations belong to the sphere of the outstanding contractual relationship (Systran, C-103/11-P)

In its Judgment of 18 April 2013 in case C-103/11-P Commission v Systran SA, Systran Luxembourg SA (Systran), the CJEU has broadly followed the Opinion of AG Cruz Villalon and confirmed that, when confronted with liability claims, EU Courts must first determine whether there exists a genuine contractual context, linked to the subject-matter of the dispute, between the claimant and the defending EU institution. In that regard, according to the CJEU, if a preliminary analysis of those matters shows that it is necessary to interpret the content of one or more contracts concluded between the parties in question in order to establish whether the applicant’s claims are well founded, EU Courts are required at that point to halt their examination of the dispute and declare that they have no jurisdiction (press release). 

As anticipated here, this finding seems to have deep implications in the debate concerning the vis atractiva of contractual relationships when one of the parties subsequently engages in tortious behavior (in the case, for breach of IP rigths) and, consequently, the Systran Judgment deserves some careful thought. 

As the CJEU has clearly set out in Systran:
63 [...] when hearing an action for compensation, the Community Courts must, before ruling on the substance of the dispute, as a preliminary issue determine their jurisdiction by carrying out an analysis to establish the character of the liability invoked and thus the very nature of the dispute in question.
64 In doing that, those Courts cannot base their reasoning simply on the rules alleged by the parties.
65 In that regard, [...] the Court of Justice has already held that the mere invocation of legal rules not flowing from a contract relevant in the case, but which are binding on the parties, cannot have the consequence of altering the contractual nature of the dispute and thus removing it from the jurisdiction of the competent court. If it were otherwise, the nature of the dispute and, consequently, the competent court, could be changed at the whim of the rules invoked by the parties, which would go against the rules on the jurisdiction of the various courts ratione materiae (Guigard v Commission, paragraph 43).
66 However, the Community Courts are required to verify whether the action for compensation before them has as its subject-matter a claim for damages based objectively and overall on rights and obligations of a contractual nature or of a non-contractual nature. For those purposes, as the Advocate General has pointed out in points 49 and 50 of his Opinion, those Courts must examine, on an analysis of the various matters in the file, such as, for example, the rule of law allegedly infringed, the nature of the damage claimed, the conduct complained of and the legal relations between the parties in question, whether there exists between them a genuine contractual context, linked to the subject-matter of the dispute, the in-depth examination of which proves to be indispensable for the resolution of the said action.
67 If a preliminary analysis of those matters shows that it is necessary to interpret the content of one or more contracts concluded between the parties in question in order to establish whether the applicant’s claims are well founded, those courts are required at that point to halt their examination of the dispute and declare that they have no jurisdiction to rule thereon in the absence of an arbitration clause in the said contracts. In such circumstances, examination of the action for compensation directed against the Community would imply the assessment of rights and obligations of a contractual nature which, pursuant to Article 240 EC, cannot be removed from the jurisdiction of the national courts (C-103/11-P, paras 63 to 67, emphasis added).
More specifically, when analyzing the application of these principles by the General Court in the appealed decision, the CJEU stressed that
It is true [...] that it is not sufficient to allege simply any contractual relationship with the applicant or obligations of contractual origin not envisaging the conduct in dispute in order to be able to change the nature of the dispute by giving it a contractual basis. However, the fact remains that where, having regard to the content of the action for compensation against the Community, the interpretation of one or more contracts concluded between the parties in question appears to be indispensable in order to establish the legality or otherwise of the conduct by the institutions which is complained of, the dispute falls outside the jurisdiction of the Community Courts (C-103/11-P, para 80, emphasis added).
A summary reading of Systran indicates that, when the parties hold a previous or ongoing contractual relationship (which merits interpretation), claims for damages (due to breach of IPR-rights, or otherwise) should in principle be analysed within the sphere of those contracts and, only if no sufficient connection is found to the prior contractual bound, a 'purely' tortious claim will be allowed. Such a principle, which is developed in view of jurisdictional concerns, may have very significant substantive implications for contract and tort law in the EU (which precise delimitation seems to be permanently under debate)--unless the Systran Judgment is confined to a matter of procedural law (which, in my opinion, would be the wrong thing to do).


The general approach in Systran would imply that EU Courts retain jurisdiction for damages claims only in the absence of any (meaningful, sufficiently close) contractual relationship between the claimant and the defending EU institution (which, for instance, would leave them completely lacking of jurisdiction in the area of damages resulting from public procurement and the execution of the ensuing public contracts). 

It would also imply, more generally, that as a matter of EU Law, there is a principle of contractual absorption (vis atractiva contractus) that would extend the sphere of the contract, ie its scope (and, possibly, its effectiveness), to the damages inflicted by one party to the other due to tortious behaviour that may exceed the specific provisions of the contract (ie beyond strict breaches of contractual obligations). As a result of such vis atractiva--and given the different regulation of contractual and non-contractual claims in each of the Member States--different rules can apply to issues such as limitation periods, liquidated damages, penalty clauses, arbitration agreements, etc. 

And, in any case, given the difficulty in drawing a clear dividing line between contract and other areas of private law, the issue seems far from being finally sorted out, despite the creation of this type of rules of priority of contract law over non-contractual obligations, such as the one expressly included in the Draft Common Frame of Reference (VI.–1:103):
Should it, however, in fact come to a conflict between the values of contract law and non-contractual liability law in any particular case, whereby contract law denies liability which would subsist according to the provisions on noncontractual liability, then it is for the rules of contract law to assert priority if that is to be claimed in accord with the objective of the contract law rules. That is again the case if an application of the law on non-contractual liability in parallel with the corresponding contract law provision would deprive the latter of its effect. The contract law rule has priority so far as contract law actually claims it, whether expressly or merely by implication from the nature of things. Where contract law makes no such demand for the subsidiarity of non-contractual liability law, sub-paragraph (c) has no application and the principle of free concurrence of actions governs.
Therefore, the recognition (or not) of a general principle of the vis atractiva of contracts as a matter of EU law (in Systran) seems most relevant and deserves some further work in the future--particularly in view of the interrelationship between issues of substance and procedure (jurisdiction), which the CJEU has, as a matter of principle, prioritised in favour of contract law (and which also seems the default preferred option in the DCFR 2008).

Protection of IPR and limits of contractual relationships: AG Opinion in Case C-103/11 P

Last 15 Movember 2012, Advocate General Cruz Villalon delivered his Opinion in case in Case C-103/11 P Commission v Systran SA and Systran Luxembourg SA, where he endorsed the position of the European Commission whereby intellectual property related disputes that arise in the broader context of a contractual relationship between rights-holder and infringer are a matter of contractual liability--and, consequently, remain outside the jurisdiction of the EU Courts.

The dispute derived from the disclosure of proprietary Systran know how and other IPR protected data by the European Commission to a third party in the context of the maintenance and linguistic enhancement of a machine translation system initially developed by Systran. Systran brought the case to the General Court and, in 2010 (T-19/07), it held that the dispute could not be considered to be contractual in nature and that it did not therefore lack jurisdiction to adjudicate upon it. It imposed a lump sum payment of €12mn to compensate Systran for the loss of value of its IPR. The Commission appealed.

According to AG Cruz Villalon,  the dispute in question must primarily be examined by the competent national courts, in accordance with the agreements in question and the laws applicable to them.  According to the AG, the General Court made an error in law in its examination of the relationships which were established, in a very marked contractual context, between the Commission and the various companies in the Systran group which have developed or contributed  to the development of the various versions of the Systran software. Therefore, the General Court wrongly declared itself as having jurisdiction to hear and determine the action for compensation for the damage allegedly caused to Systran by the Commission’s conduct. 

The final decision by the CJEU in this case will be of major relevance, since it will deal with the complicated issue (which does not seem to receive homogeneous treatment across the EU) of the vis attractiva of contracts when the parties engage in subsequent tortious behavior. Therefore, the final Judgment in case C-103/11 may have large consequences for the Contract Law of Member States, which leaves me with the question whether the adjudication of this case may not in itself run against the allocation of competences in private law matters that seem to have a weak connection with the internal market (mainly, concerning art 114 TFEU). Definitely, a case to follow with interest and area where some well-meditated research seems required.

CJEU on limitation period to claim damages due to tender rejection (C-469/11)

In its Judgment of 8 November 2012 in case C-469/11 Evropaiki Dynamiki v Commission, the CJEU has clearly settled the rules controlling limitation periods applicable to claims for damages resulting from the (illegal) rejection of tender offers. 

The Judgment of the CJEU is straightforward:
39 In the present case, the claim for compensation made by Evropaïki Dynamiki is based on the rejection of the tender which it submitted in a Commission tendering procedure.
40 In such a situation, as the General Court correctly ruled in the order under appeal, without Evropaïki Dynamiki having challenged that finding, the decision of the contracting authority to reject the tender submitted constitutes the loss-causing event capable of giving rise to non-contractual liability on the part of that authority. The adverse effects of such a decision affect the tenderer concerned once its tender has been rejected. Thus, knowledge of such a decision by the tenderer must, in principle, be regarded as constituting the starting point of the limitation period, not knowledge of the grounds therefor (C-469/11 at paras 39 and 40, emphasis added).
The decision reached by the CJEU seems sensible at face value. However, once the specific circumstances of the case are taken into consideration, the strict limitation imposed by the CJEU may seem disproportionate. In view of the CJEU:
42 [...] it is also not relevant that the [rejection] decision of 15 September 2004 was annulled on 10 September 2008 by the Judgment of the General Court in Case T‑465/04 Evropaïki Dynamiki v Commission on the ground of deficient reasoning. It is in fact immaterial, as regards the starting point of the period of limitation, whether the European Union’s unlawful conduct has been established by a judicial decision (Judgment in Case C‑282/05 P Holcim (Deutschland) v Commission, paragraph 31).
43 In any event, Evropaïki Dynamiki has not argued that it did not have a reasonable time in which to submit its application before the expiry of the limitation period by reason of the fact that the latter began to run from the time at which it became aware of the Commission’s decision rejecting its tender, or even because of the insufficient reasoning of that decision (C-469/11 at paras 42 and 43,emphasis added).
In my view, while the illegality of the rejection has not been declared, it is impractical to think that the aggrieved tenderer can sue for damages with any chance of succeeding before that key point of law is settled. Therefore, the decision of the CJEU seems rather harsh, since the actual possibility to claim for damages did not accrue until after the rejection decision had been declared illegal. Bearing that in mind, the reasoning that the would be claimant has not argued that it did not have a reasonable time in which to submit its application before the expiry of the limitation period does not hold water (precisely, the action against the dismissal of his claim due to the expiry of the limitation period seems to be based on nothing but that argument).

In my opinion, then, we would need to set a two-step limitation period for claims for damages due to the illegal rejection of tenders, which impose a maximum period of (say) 5 years always provided that the claimant has at least (say) 1 year to file a claim from the moment the rejection decision is declared illegal by a resolution having the force of res iudicata. Otherwise, many damages claims can be preempted exclusively as a result of lengthy appeals procedures, which does not seem desirable (nor fair).

Goodbye to the European Procurement Passport: Hello false claims and/or criminalisation rules?

According to the UK Cabinet Office's latest Progress Update on the Modernisation of the EU Procurement Rules  (http://tinyurl.com/modernisationupdate), the creation of a new European Procurement Passport (EPP) that the Commission had included in the December 2011 proposal for the modernisation of Directive 2004/18 has been dropped from the compromise text (http://tinyurl.com/modernisationcompromise).

This should be seen as a welcome development, since it will finally not increase the red tape involved in public procurement procedures (as anticipated in my  Are the Procurement Rules a Barrier for Cross-Border Trade within the European Market? A View on Proposals to Lower that Barrier and Spur Growth: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1986114).

Indeed, as the Cabinet Office stresses, since the information to be included in the EPP is now largely going to be provided by self-declaration with only the winning bidder submitting the documentary evidence (in case the rules of art 57 in the compromise text hold the rest of the EU legislative process), it now seems an unnecessary administrative burden.

However, it should be stressed that self declarations still present some issues, due to the risk of strategic behaviour on the part of bidders. Failure to submit the supporting evidence regarding the information included in a self-declaration is configured exclusively as a (discretionary) exclusion ground under Article 55(3)(f) of the compromise text (which comes to replace the suppressed provisions in article 68 of the December 2011 proposal), in the following terms:
Contracting authorities may exclude or may be required by Member States to exclude from participation in a procurement procedure any economic operator in any of the following situations: [...] (f) where the economic operator has been guilty of serious misrepresentation in supplying the information required for the verification of the absence of grounds for exclusion or the fulfilment of the selection criteria, has withheld such information or [is] not able to submit the supporting documents required pursuant to Article 57;
This is in, my opinion, the proper treatment of this circumstance (and clearly better than its treatment as a 'mere' awarding impediment, as initially proposed by the Commission). However, I think that it is worth stressing that this rule still leaves excessive uncovered risks in case of strategic behaviour by non-compliant bidders that would require second or ulterior awards (with the corresponding difficulties regarding the need to ensure that other bidders keep their offers open, new award notices, etc). Even if the buying body can (self)protect its interests by excluding the tenderer [and, possibly, by pushing for an extended exclusion from all procurement procedures, depending on the national rules on debarment--which will need to be developed to implement art 57(4) of the compromise text] there is a risk of uncompensated damages and, implicilty, scope for criminal proceedings for fraud (or related) offences.

Therefore, I still think that it is necessary to strengthen the consequences of failing to produce supporting evidence for the self-declarations (and, more generally, of providing false information), which should not only be a ground for exclusion, but also be reinforced by rules that set it as a head of damage that allowed contracting authorities to recover any additional expenses derived from the need to proceed to a second-best, delayed award of the contract (without excluding the eventual enforcement of criminal law provisions regarding deceit or other types of fraud under applicable national laws). Also, rules on annulment of the awarded contract and other sanctions are needed for those instances where the discovery of the falsity of the documents occurs after contract award, when exclusion does not seem to be an apropriate remedy.