ECJ avoids providing guidance on intensity of judicial review of procurement decisions by sticking to strictly formalistic approach: The Gaping hole remains (C-171/15)

In its Judgment of 14 December 2016, Connexxion Taxi Services, C-171/15, EU:C:2016:948, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has provided clarification on whether contracting authorities can decide to subject their decisions to exclude economic operators from procurement procedures to a proportionality assessment even where such assessment would deviate from the strict rules created in the tender documentation by the contracting authorities themselves.

In the case at hand, a Dutch contracting authority had published tender documents that seemed to create an automatic obligation to exclude by stating that: 'A tender to which a ground for exclusion applies shall be set aside and shall not be eligible for further (substantive) assessment'. However, the contracting authority subsequently sought to rely on generally applicable Dutch administrative law (in particular, the Explanatory Memorandum of the law transposing the 2004 public procurement Directive) to subject the exclusion decision to a proportionality assessment. On the basis of that proportionality analysis, the contracting authority decided not to exclude the tenderer and to award it the contract.

This triggered the challenge by a competing tenderer, which claimed that, having found that the tenderer had been guilty of grave professional misconduct, the contracting authority was not in a position to make an assessment of proportionality. That assessment would have already been carried out by including the misconduct as an absolute ground for exclusion in the descriptive document. Given the wording of the latter, it was argued that it would be contrary to the principles of public access, transparency and equality in matters of administrative procurement for the contracting authority to have the power to assess the proportionality of the ground for exclusion.

The Dutch referring court asked the ECJ to consider whether Art 45(2) of Directive 2004/18/EC precluded a contracting authority from being obliged to assess under national law, and in accordance with the principle of proportionality, whether a tenderer which had been guilty of grave professional misconduct should be excluded from a contract. The referring court put particular stress on the fact that the ECJ had not adjudicated on the importance to be attached to the fact that, in the tender conditions, the contracting authority had provided for the rejection, without any examination of the substance, of any tender to which a ground of exclusion applies. In answering those questions, the ECJ decided to stick very closely to two of its lines of case law that, ultimately, create a very difficult (dis)functional situation.

First, following precedents in La Cascina and Others, C‑226/04 and C‑228/04, EU:C:2006:94, and in Consorzio Stabile Libor Lavori Pubblici, C‑358/12, EU:C:2014:2063, the ECJ reiterated that the discretionary exclusion grounds regulated in Art 45(2) Dir 2004/18 (and now in art 57(4) Dir 2014/24) do 'not provide for uniform application at EU level of the grounds of exclusion it mentions, since the Member States may choose not to apply those grounds of exclusion at all or to incorporate them into national law with varying degrees of rigour according to legal, economic or social considerations prevailing at national level. In that context, the Member States have the power to make the criteria laid down in Article 45(2) less onerous or more flexible' (C-171/15, para 29). This led the ECJ to establish that

31 As far as concerns the grounds for excluding a tenderer which has been guilty of grave professional misconduct from a contract, it is clear from the order for reference that [Dutch] legislation requires the contracting authority concerned, which establishes that the tenderer has been guilty of such misconduct, to determine, in accordance with the principle of proportionality, whether the tenderer should in fact be excluded.
32 Thus, it appears that that assessment of the proportionality of the exclusion makes the application of the ground of exclusion relating to grave professional misconduct laid down in Article 45(2)(d) of Directive 2004/18 more flexible ... Furthermore, it follows from recital 2 thereof that the principle of proportionality applies in a general manner to public procurement procedures (C-171/15, paras 31-32, emphasis added).

Ultimately, then, national legislation which requires a contracting authority to assess, in accordance with the principle of proportionality, whether it is in fact appropriate to exclude from a public contract a tenderer which has been guilty of grave professional misconduct is compatible with EU public procurement law (C-171/15, para 33).

Second, and in stark contrast with this seemingly functional and principles-oriented interpretation of the rules in Directive 2004/18/EC, the ECJ then moved on to adopt a very formalistic approach when considering the specific situation where the contracting authority would have excluded the possibility of such proportionality assessment in the tender documentation by establishing that exclusion on specific grounds would not be subjected to any substantive assessment. It may have been relevant at this point to know with more precision whether that would have been illegal under Dutch law for the tender documentation could be seen as contra legem (as, in my view, it would have been eg under Spanish law due to the public administration's duty to conduct its business with subjection to the applicable laws and regulations).

Be it as it may, the ECJ framed the issue in the following terms:

 36 It is conceivable that, when the contract documents are drafted, the contracting authority concerned may take the view, in accordance with the nature of that contract, the sensitive nature of the services which are its subject, and the requirements of professional honesty and reliability of the economic operators which arise from that, that the commission of grave professional misconduct must result in the automatic rejection of the tender and the exclusion of the tenderer at fault, provided that the principle of proportionality is observed when the seriousness of that misconduct is assessed.
37 Such a clause, inserted into the contract documents in unambiguous terms ... enables all economic operators which are reasonably well informed exercising ordinary care to be apprised of the requirements of the contracting authority and the conditions of the contract so they may act accordingly (C-171/15, paras 36-37, emphasis added).

I find these passages, and in particular para 36, very confusing. It seems to indicate that the contracting authority, despite the discretion it has in deciding to include as applicable the ground of discretionary exclusion due to grave professional misconduct in the tender documentation or not, remains bound to ensure that 'the principle of proportionality is observed when the seriousness of that misconduct is assessed'. That would, in and of itself, exclude the possibility of predetermining that the exclusion on that ground will be absolute and not subjected to any further (substantive) assessment. Therefore, making this be followed by para 37, where the contrary underlying position exists in the determination that setting a clause of automatic exclusion in unambiguous terms provides tenderers with a clear view of the requirements, is at least disconcerting.

The ECJ then decided to follow very formalistic precedents whereby 'the contracting authority must comply strictly with the criteria which it has itself laid down (see, to that effect, judgment of 10 October 2013, Manova, C‑336/12, EU:C:2013:647, paragraph 40 and the case-law cited) in the light, in particular, of Annex VII A, paragraph 17, to Directive 2004/18' (C-171/15, para 38). It also added that, following its more recent Judgment in Pizzo, C‑27/15, EU:C:2016:404, 'the principle of equal treatment requires tenderers to be afforded equality of opportunity when formulating their tenders, which therefore implies that the bids of all tenderers must be subject to the same conditions' and that 'the obligation of transparency requires that all the conditions and detailed rules of the award procedure must be drawn up in a clear, precise and unequivocal manner in the contract notice or specifications so that, first, all reasonably informed tenderers exercising ordinary care can understand their exact significance and interpret them in the same way and, second, the contracting authority is able to ascertain whether the tenders submitted satisfy the criteria applying to the contract in question' (for discussion, see here).

On the basis of this, the ECJ creates an argument whereby tenderers from different Member States will be less likely to submit tenders when they are affected by an exclusion ground because they may not be aware of the possibility of their exclusion actually being subjected to a proportionality assessment despite the explicit terms of the tender documents, which the ECJ considers domestic tenders would do. From that, the ECJ concludes that 'the assessment of the exclusion at issue in the light of the principle of proportionality, where the tender conditions of the contract concerned provide for the rejection of tenders which are covered by such an exclusion clause without any assessment of that principle, is liable to place the economic operators concerned in an uncertain position and adversely affect the principle of equal treatment and compliance with the obligation of transparency' (see C-171/15, paras 41-43). Ultimately, then, the ECJ considers that the decision to subject the decision whether to exclude the tenderer to a proportionality assessment despite the explicit terms of the tender documents was contrary to EU public procurement law.

Critical remarks

I find the Connexxion Taxi Services Judgment very confusing because it seems to answer two interconnected questions about the relevance and effectiveness of the general principles of public procurement in an intrinsically contradictory manner, and it seems to me that the ECJ has taken another step down the formalist road. In the case at hand, and following the proposals of Advocate General Campos Sánchez-Bordona (see here), I considered that it must be right that contracting authorities are always under a general obligation to act in a proportionate manner and, consequently, each decision they adopt needs to be proportionate under the circumstances and pro-competitive, and that ultimately 'a contracting authority must retain the power to assess, on a case-by-case basis, the gravity of the circumstances that would lead to exclusion of the tenderer. And ... it must also balance them against the effects that such exclusion would have on competition' [see A Sanchez-Graells, Public procurement and the EU competition rules, 2nd edn (Oxford, Hart, 2015) 293, references omitted].  

Despite the fact that the Connexxion Taxi Services Judgment sticks to the traditional formalist approach whereby the Court does not allow contracting authorities to deviate from the strictures of the published tender documentation, and this must at this stage not come as a surprise, the decision strikes as particularly odd because the ECJ does not seem to give much weight to the general principle of proportionality--either as enacted under the disputed Dutch rules, or more generally under the EU public procurement rules themselves--despite having accepted that the general principle can (and should?) control all procurement decisions. Remarkably, the ECJ deviated from the more progressive and flexible approach advanced by the AG and also created a strange focus of analysis by moving from the assessment of the decision of the contracting authority to the potential incentives of participation for non-domestic economic operators in a way that I also find very formalistic and potentially misguided.

Considering Connexxion Taxi ServicesManova and other precedents together, what seems clear is that contracting authorities can only reduce the scope of their discretion by self-imposed restrictions published in the tender documents. Thus, they would be better off by publishing bare bones tender documents and then exercising administrative discretion subject only to compliance with general principles of public procurement, as well as applicable domestic rules. However, this would fly on the face of Pizzo where the way the contracting authority justifies its decisions does not result immediately from the tender documents, which then gives contracting authorities the contrary incentive to reiterate all domestic rules in the tender documentation.

Other than contradictory, these sets of case law are also extremely formalistic and ultimately built on a non-functional obsession with the integration of the single market that can get on the way of the development of sound public procurement practice. Ultimately, the general principles of public procurement should be there to create sufficient checks and balances and, in their generality, they should rank higher than tender documents. Actually, it is not foreign to the ECJ case law to consider that tender requirements that are disproportionate or discriminatory cannot be included in the tender documentation (or need to be set aside, or ultimately determine the ineffectiveness of the procurement exercise). Thus, it would be desirable for that logical hierarchy to remain a constant, even if it means that cross-border participation in procurement processes does not come at zero transaction costs and that interested undertakings need to make themselves familiar with the domestic rules of the jurisdiction in which they are tendering.

Beyond that, it also seems to me that the ECJ is inadvertently creating an absolute need for an exclusion-related special procedural phase, where tenderers other than those affected by potential exclusion have a justiciable right to force the contracting authority to review the circumstances of other tenderers. This is not necessarily an overall undesirable development, but it can be problematic in many ways, not least because the EU substantive and procedural rules are not adapted to that function [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), Administrative oversight and judicial protection for public contracts (Larcier, 2017) forthcoming]. 

Last, but not least, it is also worth noting that, by answering in the way it has, the ECJ has avoided the need to provide clarification on the requirements of intensity of judicial review of public procurement decisions at Member State level, on which AG Campos Sánchez-Bordona had put together a rather stringent and not uncontroversial proposal (see here). Unfortunately, then, given the ECJ's unwillingness to answer that question, we will continue puzzledly looking at the gaping hole that Prof Caranta identified in the ECJ's jurisprudence concerning public procurement remedies [see R Caranta, 'Many Different Paths, but Are They All Leading to Effectiveness?', in S Treumer & F Lichère (eds), Enforcement of the EU Public Procurement Rules, vol 3 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF Publishing, 2011) 53, 84].


Another excessively formalistic Judgment on conflicts of interest in public procurement (T-403/12)

Following its incipient line of public procurement case law that sets the burden of proof of conflicts of interest too high (see here), the General Court (GC) of the Court of Justice of the European Union has once more taken a very formalistic approach to the assessment of situations were certain bidders should be presumed to hold an unfair competitive advantage. In its Judgment of 13 October 2015 in Intrasoft International v Commission, T-403/12, EU:T:2015:774, the GC has adopted a  very formalistic approach to the 'objective' assessment of an unfair competitive advantage derived from prior involvement of a tenderer in the preparation of documentation used in a specific tender. Once more, the case involves procurement by the EU Institutions, but the legal arguments and the reasoning of the GC is relevant for procurement under the general EU rules.

In Intrasoft International v Commission, the excluded tenderer had been involved in the preparation of tender documents in an indirect way or as a result of relative happenstance. Indeed, the tenderer had not drafted documents specifically for the tender at hand, but it had been involved in the drafting of tender documentation for a previous project that ended up being 'reused' by the contracting authority. This situation was assessed in conflicting ways between the contracting authority (the European Commission) and the excluded tenderer.

According to the Commission, the (indirect) previous involvement sufficed to provide the tenderer with an undue competitive advantage that required its exclusion from the tender process as the only remedy to that conflict of interest. As summarised by the GC
the Commission argues that ... a certain number of documents drafted by the applicant under the previous contract were joined to the terms of reference for the new tendering procedure. These documents ‘constitute[d] the basis for an important portion of the activities due under the ongoing tender’. The Commission does not dispute, as the applicant observes, that the documents were made available to all potential candidates. However, it contends that the applicant had access to them before the other tenderers and thus enjoyed a competitive advantage, in particular, in searching for qualified experts. Furthermore, while not claiming that this was actually the situation in the present case, the Commission suggests that, having participated in their drafting, the applicant would have been in a position to draft the documents in a way that gave it a competitive advantage for the procurement contract at issue (T-403/12, para 65).
Not surprisingly, the excluded tenderer disagrees and has an opposite assessment of the advantage derived from the previous (indirect) involvement in the drafting of the tender documentation
the applicant states that it was not involved in drafting the terms of reference or the project-related requirements for [the specific tender]. The applicant states, in addition, that it did not have in its possession any more information than that available to all the tenderers. Consequently, according to the applicant, the fact that it had taken part in drawing up a number of technical documents in connection with another tendering procedure could not, in itself, constitute a sufficient reason to draw the unfavourable inference that the applicant was subject to a conflict of interest. Further, it considers that it is apparent from the Court’s case-law (judgment of 3 March 2005 in Fabricom, C-21/03 and C-34/03, ECR, EU:C:2005:127) that the experience acquired under a previous contract is not capable of distorting competition, because if that were the case most tenderers would have to be excluded from new tendering procedures on that ground (T-403/12, para 63).
In addressing these diverging assessments of the situation of conflict of interest potentially affecting the excluded tenderer, the GC adopts a very formalistic approach, which builds up as follows:
76 The awarding authorities are under no absolute obligation to exclude systematically tenderers in a situation of a conflict of interests, such exclusion not being justified in cases in which it is possible to show that that situation had no impact on their conduct in the context of the tender procedure and that it entails no actual risk of practices liable to distort competition between tenderers. On the other hand, the exclusion of a tenderer where there is a conflict of interests is essential where there is no more appropriate remedy to avoid any breach of the principles of equal treatment of tenderers and transparency (judgment in Nexans France v Entreprise commune Fusion for Energy, [T-415/10], EU:T:2013:141, paragraphs 116 and 117).
79 It is apparent from the case-law ... that the reasoning in terms of risk of conflict of interests requires a concrete assessment, first, of the tender and, second, of the situation of the tenderer concerned, and that the exclusion of that tenderer is a remedy designed to ensure respect for the principles of transparency and equality of opportunity for tenderers.
80 In order to determine whether, in the present case, there has been an infringement ... it is, therefore, necessary to examine, in the context of an objective analysis without taking into account the applicant’s intentions, whether the risk of a conflict of interests stems from the applicant’s situation and from a concrete assessment of its tender.
81 In the first place, it should be noted that, according to the Commission, the exclusion of the applicant because of a conflict of interests has the purpose of ensuring observance of the principle of equal treatment of tenderers. It argues that the applicant had access, before the others, to certain documents used as the basis for some of the activities connected with the call for tenders at issue, on the ground that the applicant was part of the consortium which drafted the documents in question for another call for tenders. It is apparent from the letter of 10 August 2012 that that access would have made available to the applicant ‘privileged information’ ... The Commission therefore takes the view, in accordance with what appears in the letter in question, that that access, before the other tenderers, would have given the applicant a competitive advantage in relation to those tenderers.
82 However, it cannot be accepted that the risk of a conflict of interests can be based on the mere fact that the applicant had access, before the other tenderers, to the documents specific to another call for tenders because it belonged to the consortium which prepared those documents which, subsequently, were retained to be used as a reference for the activities associated with the call for tenders at issue in the present case (T-403/12, paras 76 and 79-82, emphasis added).
This first part of the argument seems to follow the general Fabricom approach against instances of automatic exclusion of tenderers previously involved in the design of tender procedures. However, the specific application of this approach to the circumstances of the case becomes very quickly very formal and restrictive by putting what I see as excessive reliance on the fact that the tender documents 'originally belonged' to a different procedure or, in other words, were not exclusive for the tender procedure at hand. That part of the GC's argument goes as follows:
84 Within the meaning of the case-law ... the risk of a conflict of interests exists for the person responsible for the preparatory work for a public contract who participates in that same contract. In this respect it should be noted that, when the Court of Justice used the expression ‘preparatory work’ at paragraph 29 of the judgment in Fabricom, cited in paragraph 63 above (EU:C:2005:127), it was referring to work carried out in the context of one and the same call for tenders.
85 Therefore, the Commission was not entitled to treat the preparation of documents drafted in the course of another call for tenders in the same way as preparatory works under the tendering procedure at issue, within the meaning of the case-law mentioned at paragraph 63 above, unless to show objectively and specifically, first, that those documents had been prepared in the light of the tendering procedure at issue and, secondly, that they had given the applicant a real advantage. If this is not demonstrated, the documents prepared in the course of another tendering procedure, and chosen subsequently by the contracting authority as a reference for part of the activities in a different tendering procedure, are not considered ‘preparatory works’ within the meaning of the case-law previously cited ...
86 In the present case it must be stated that the applicant’s exclusion from the award of the contract was based on the mere fact that it was part of a consortium which drafted the documents under a previous tendering procedure, whereas it has not been argued that the other tenderers did not have access to those same documents in sufficient time. Furthermore, the preparation of those documents did not involve the applicant’s participation in the preparation of the tendering specifications in the call for tenders at issue. Therefore, it has not been established that the applicant was in possession of more information than the other tenderers, which would have amounted to a breach of the principles of equal treatment and of transparency.
87 It follows that the documents at issue do not constitute ‘privileged information’ ... The exclusion of the applicant, contrary to what is claimed by the Commission, is not therefore covered ... and is thus not justified by an infringement of the principles of equal treatment and transparency.
88 Moreover, to classify the documents prepared in the context of another tendering procedure as ‘preparatory work’, on the basis that they have been retained by the contracting authority as a reference for the activities connected to a subsequent tendering procedure, would lead, as the applicant rightly maintains, to it being automatically considered that the experience acquired through participation in an earlier call for tenders is liable to distort competition (T-403/12, paras 84-88, emphasis added).
The specific decision in the case at hand resulted in an annulment of the exclusion decision, but primarily on the basis of lack of evidence of the actual advantage enjoyed by the tenderer previously (indirectly) involved in the preparation of tender documentation. 

Beyond the specific case, the formal approach taken by the GC can create difficulties in actually excluding tenderers with a previous indirect involvement in the preparation of documents used in a specific tender process, particularly because the test created in para 85 of Intrasoft International v Commission comes to set a very high burden of proof that will be hard to discharge: the contracting authority cannot 'treat the preparation of documents drafted in the course of another call for tenders in the same way as preparatory works under the tendering procedure at issueunless to show objectively and specifically, first, that those documents had been prepared in the light of the tendering procedure at issue and, secondly, that they had given the applicant a real advantage'. Such element of 'linkage' to the specific tender will definitely be very problematic. In my opinion, it can also infringe the general requirement that the assessment of conflicts of interest be totally objective, as stressed by the GC itself in this same case: 
The concept of a conflict of interests is objective in nature and, in order to establish it, it is appropriate to disregard the intentions of those concerned, in particular whether they acted in good faith (see judgment of 20 March 2013 in Nexans France v Entreprise commune Fusion for Energy, T-415/10, ECR, EU:T:2013:141, paragraph 115 and the case-law cited) (T-403/12, para 75, emphasis added).
If the expression 'prepared in the light of the tendering procedure at issue' is constructed to require (positive, recorded) knowledge by the tenderer preparing the documentation that it would be used in more than one tender procedure, then the GC may have just created a requirement of probatio diabolica where it is hard to see how that could be proved in cases where the 'reuse' of the documentation is decided subsequently to the involvement of the tenderer or, more importantly, where it is decided from the beginning but that decision is informal or never recorded (and regardless of it actually being disclosed to the tenderer participating in its preparation). 

Once more, thus, the development of the case law on conflicts of interest in public procurement under a strict and formalistic approach seems to leave a number of questions open. It will be interesting to see how the Court of Justice itself addresses them if they ever reach its docket.

When a commercial lawyer is (also) a consumer: Excessive paternalism by the CJEU (C-110/14)

In its Judgment in Costea, C-110/14, EU:C:2015:271, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has engaged in extreme formalism in the interpretation of the notion of 'consumer' under EU law [and, more precisely, under Article 2(b) of Council Directive 93/13/EEC of 5 April 1993 on unfair terms in consumer contracts]. Costea is, in my view, a criticisable Judgment because it pushes legal fiction too far and departs from what I would have considered a sensible functional approach to the concept of consumer. It is worth looking closer at the reasoning of the CJEU.

The CJEU provides a very useful summary of the facts of the case: 
Mr Costea practises as a lawyer and, as such, primarily handles cases in the field of commercial law... he concluded a credit agreement with Volksbank. The repayment of that loan was secured by a mortgage registered against a building belonging to Mr Costea’s law firm ... That credit agreement was signed by Mr Costea, not only in his capacity as borrower but also in his capacity as representative of his law firm, owing to the latter’s status of mortgage guarantor (C-110/14, para 9, emphasis added).
In short, then, Mr Costea was legally acting in several capacities in a single commercial transaction, where he was both borrowing money personally and representing the legal entity that acted as his guarantor. However, he claimed protection under EU law so as to detach both legal positions and avoid his professional qualification from reducing the protection that he would otherwise be afforded as a lay consumer.

His claim was, in very simple terms, that he was at the same time a commercial lawyer acting for his firm and a consumer acting for himself. Given the impossibility of splitting the human mind and detaching oneself from knowledge already acquired, it is very hard to understand how--beyond the legal fiction derived from his ability to represent a legal entity created and owned by himself, as well as his own personal interests--he could ever be considered to functionally hold two very opposite positions: ie that of the knowledgeable commercial lawyer that acts under the general duties of his lex artis, and that of the unknowing consumer that deserves special protection when it enters into complex transactions.

However, the CJEU does precisely that. Following the Opinion of AG Cruz Villalón (see a comment here), the CJEU engages in the following reasoning:
17 It is ... by reference to the capacity of the contracting parties, according to whether or not they are acting for purposes relating to their trade, business or profession, that the directive defines the contracts to which it applies (judgments in Asbeek Brusse and de Man Garabito, C-488/11, EU:C:2013:341, paragraph 30, and Šiba, C-537/13, EU:C:2015:14, paragraph 21).
18 That criterion corresponds to the idea on which the system of protection implemented by that directive is based, namely that the consumer is in a weaker position vis-à-vis the seller or supplier, as regards both his bargaining power and his level of knowledge. This leads to the consumer agreeing to terms drawn up in advance by the seller or supplier without being able to influence the content of those terms (judgments in Asbeek Brusse and de Man Garabito, C-488/11, EU:C:2013:341, paragraph 31, and Šiba, C-537/13, EU:C:2015:14, paragraph 22).
21 The concept of ‘consumer’, within the meaning of Article 2(b) of Directive 93/13, is ... objective in nature and is distinct from the concrete knowledge the person in question may have, or from the information that person actually has (C-110/14, paras 17-18 and 21, emphasis added).
In setting up this analytical framework, the CJEU conflates two arguments. The first one relates to the weak position of the consumer in terms of unequal bargaining power. The second one relates to the information imperfection that can affect the consumer. At least on this second point, the CJEU is extremely formalist and engages in an interpretation of EU law that is not adjusted to commercial reality, but simply aimed at the world of ideas. By  flatly rejecting that the specific knowledge and expertise of the consumer can alter its legal position, the CJEU preempts any granularity in EU consumer law, at least when it comes to a potential reduction of the standard of protection of the savvy consumer--which is also functionally in stark contrast with the increased protection afforded to the particularly vulnerable consumer, and thus creates a clear imbalance in the development of this area of EU economic law.

Moreover, this formalism exacerbates the paternalism of the CJEU in its aim to protect consumers, even when they are in a situation where they do not actually deserve protection because they are not affected by an information asymmetry or imperfection [for extended discussion on this rationale for consumer protection law, see F Gomez Pomar, 'EC Consumer Protection Law and EC Competition Law: How related are they? A Law and Economics perspective' (2003) InDret 113, pp. 10 and ff]. Thus, the Costea Judgment is bound to expand consumer protection beyond its desirable remit.

The line of argument based on the consumer's limited bargaining power is the one that allows the CJEU to afford protection to Mr Costea as an individual. It is harder to take issue with the reasoning of the CJEU in paras 24-27 because the CJEU assesses the relative bargaining power of a lawyer in the abstract and concludes that 'even if a lawyer were considered to display a high level of technical knowledge ..., he could not be assumed not to be a weak party compared with a seller or supplier'. However, this should have been left for a factual assessment under the circumstances of the case, in which it could actually be proven (not presumed or assumed) that the lawyer was in no weaker position.

This is where the CJEU again engages in a line of reasoning that is extremely formalistic, particularly because it loses perspective of the fact that several legal persons are actually embodied in a single natural person. According to the CJEU
28 As regards the fact that the debt arising out of the contract in question is secured by a mortgage taken out by a lawyer in his capacity as representative of his law firm and involving goods intended for the exercise of that lawyer’s profession, such as a building belonging to that firm, it should be held that ... it has no bearing on the assessment carried out in ... this judgment.
29 The case in the main proceedings concerns the determination of the status (that of consumer or of seller or supplier) of the person who has concluded the main agreement (the credit agreement) and not the status of that person under the ancillary agreement (the mortgage), securing the payment of the debt arising from the main agreement. In a case such as that at issue in the main proceedings, the categorisation, as a consumer or as a seller or supplier, of the lawyer in the context of his taking out a mortgage cannot, consequently, determine his status under the main credit agreement (C-110/14, paras 28-29, emphasis added).
In my view, this is simply functionally absurd. The CJEU failed to look at the transaction as a whole and afforded protection beyond what might have been necessary. Moreover, the reasoning seems exceedingly simplistic in its dichotomy: ie in a given contract, each of the parties is either a consumer or a seller/supplier. This is not in line with the fact that, as AG Cruz Villalón pointed out in his Opinion, 'the contrast between the concepts of seller or supplier and consumer does not operate in completely symmetrical terms' (para 21). A functional approach should certainly allow for a more nuanced approach, so that a specific party (ie the one that demands the services in the transaction) can be categorised as consumer/no-consumer. This is certainly the case with legal entities [Judgment in Cape and Idealservice MN REC-541/99 and C-542/99, EU:C:2001:625, para 16], and there seems to be no good reason to automatically exclude such analysis in the case of professionals.

Overall, then, the Costea Judgment seems like an exceedingly formalistic exercise and leaves a flavour of undue expansion of consumer protection that could well backfire by allowing professionals to access unnecessary protection by the simple use of separate legal entities (which they can create and control). Will this lead to a future extension of the doctrine of lifting the corporate veil to the area of consumer protection? That would certainly be bonkers...