EFTA Court reverses position on liability threshold for procurement damages (Fosen-Linjen II, E-7/18)

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In its Judgment of 1 August 2019 in Fosen-Linjen AS, supported by Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon (NHO) v AtB AS (E-7/18, Fosen-Linjen II), the EFTA Court has remarkably reversed its earlier position on the liability threshold for procurement damages claims, which it had previously established in its Judgment of 31 October 2017 in (E-16/16, Fosen-Linjen I ).

I had strongly criticised the original Fosen-Linjen I Judgment in this blog (here and here), at a seminar at the University of Bergen and, in extended detail, in A Sanchez-Graells, ‘You Can’t Be Serious: Critical Reflections on the Liability Threshold for Damages Claims for Breach of EU Public Procurement Law After the EFTA Court’s Fosen-Linjen Opinion' (2018) 1(1) Nordic Journal of European Law 1-23.

Therefore, I am truly glad to see this outcome of the Norwegian Supreme Court’s (creative) referral of the case to the EFTA Court for a second opinion.

It will be recalled that, in Fosen-Linjen I, the EFTA Court controversially 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).

In a 180-degree U-turn, in Fosen-Linjen II, the EFTA Court has now rather established that

... Article 2(1)(c) of the Remedies Directive does not require that any breach of the rules governing public procurement in itself is sufficient to award damages for the loss of profit to persons harmed by an infringement of EEA public procurement rules (E-7/18, para 121).

To be sure, this reversal is likely to generate further commentary (we are thinking of a special issue to collect some different views, so stay tuned) but my hot take is that with the Fosen-Linjen II Judgment, the EFTA Court has corrected the excesses of the earlier Fosen-Linjen I approach and (re)aligned EEA with EU law in the area of liability in damages for breaches of public procurement law.

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.

 

ECJ extends the Manova principles to the submission of samples & clarifies the scope of Remedies Directive in a Utilities Procurement setting (C-131/16)

In its Judgment of 11 May 2017 in Archus and Gama, C-131/16, EU:C:2017:358, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued two sets of clarifications concerning the rules applicable to utilities procurement, which are however of general relevance, due to the identity of the relevant provisions under the general and the utilities procurement rules.

First, the ECJ explicitly extended the Manova and Slovensko line of case law to utilities procurement and in relation to the submission of samples, thus trying to clarify the boundaries of the possibility for contracting entities to request  and/or accept clarifications or additional documentation (and samples) from tenderers while still complying with the principles of equal treatment, non-discrimination and the obligation of transparency. This first part of the Archus and Gama Judgment will thus be relevant to the interpretation and application of Art 76(4) of Directive 2014/25/EU (which is identical to Art 56(3) of Directive 2014/24/EU). 

Second, the ECJ also provided clarification of the rules on standing to challenge procurement decisions under Art 1(3) of the Utilities Remedies Directive (which is identical to Art 1(3) of the general procurement Remedies Directive), and clarified that having or having had an interest in the award of the contract extends to situations where the remedy sought by the challenger cannot result in the award of such contract, but is likely to concern the initiation of a new award procedure for the award of a (different) contract with the same subject matter.

Extension of Manova to the submission of samples

In the case at hand, tenderers were required to submit samples of micro-filmed material together with their tenders. The "quality of the microfilm sample was to be assessed according to the ‘satisfies/does not satisfy’ rule, it being stipulated that if the sample was not satisfactory the offer was to be rejected" (para 14). After submission of their tender and during the evaluation phase, joint tenderers Archus and Gama sent the contracting authority a request for a correction of their tender, arguing that "there had been an inadvertent mistake [... and] seeking to substitute a new microfilm sample for that annexed to their tender, which did not conform to the tender specifications" (para 17). The contracting authority accepted the substitution of the microfilm but requested further clarification from the tenderers because it considered that "they had not provided information on the method for microfilming the sample and the [relevant] technical parameters" (para 18). The contracting authority eventually rejected the tender as non-compliant.

In a rather convoluted drafting influenced by the question referred by the domestic court, the ECJ established that the legal issue arising from these circumstances required it to determine "whether the principle of equal treatment ... must be interpreted as precluding ... a contracting authority from inviting tenderers to provide the required declarations or documents which were not supplied by them within the prescribed period for the submission of tenders or to correct those declarations or documents in case of errors, without that contracting authority also being required to point out to those tenderers that they are prohibited from altering the content of the tenders submitted" (para 24). However, there are two factual elements that seems missing here: first, the fact that the initiative for the correction initiated from the tenderers; and, second, the fact that the correction concerned a sample rather than a declaration or document, and therefore it was not information-based. Disappointingly, none of these important details feature with much prominence in the ECJ's analysis (despite para 35 referring to the fact that "it was [the] tenderers who sent the contracting authority a request for their tender to be corrected"). 

Indeed, in this part of the Judgment (paras 29-33), the ECJ provides a summary of the Manova and Slovensko line of case law and, in simplified terms, reiterates that "the principle of equal treatment does not preclude the correction or amplification of details of a tender, where it is clear that they require clarification or where it is a question of the correction of obvious clerical errors, subject, however, to the fulfilment of certain requirements" (para 29, emphasis added), such as:

  • a request for clarification of a tender cannot be made until after the contracting authority has looked at all the tenders and must, as a general rule, be sent in an equivalent manner to all undertakings which are in the same situation and must relate to all sections of the tender which require clarification (para 30)
  • that request may not lead to the submission by a tenderer of what would appear in reality to be a new tender (para 31)
  • as a general rule, when exercising its discretion as regards the right to ask a tenderer to clarify its tender, the contracting authority must treat tenderers equally and fairly, in such a way that a request for clarification does not appear unduly to have favoured or disadvantaged the tenderer or tenderers to which the request was addressed, once the procedure for selection of tenders has been completed and in the light of its outcome (para 32)

The ECJ also reiterated that "a request for clarification cannot, however, make up for the lack of a document or information whose production was required by the contract documents, the contracting authority being required to comply strictly with the criteria which it has itself laid down" (para 33, emphasis added). 

When trying to apply these general principles to the situation at hand, the ECJ established that "a request sent by the contracting authority to a tenderer to supply the declarations and documents required cannot, in principle, have any other aim than the clarification of the tender or the correction of an obvious error vitiating the tender. It cannot, therefore, permit a tenderer generally to supply declarations and documents which were required to be sent in accordance with the tender specification and which were not sent within the time limit for tenders to be submitted. Nor can it ... result in the presentation by a tenderer of documents containing corrections where in reality they constitute a new tender" (para 36); ultimately leaving it to the "referring court to determine whether ... the substitution made by Archus and Gama remained within the limits of the correction of an obvious error vitiating its tender" (para 38, emphasis added).

I find this reasoning of limited assistance in assessing the legal issue at hand. It would seem to me that the fact that the tenderers unilaterally sought to modify their tender in relation with a sample of the output of the services they were offering should have been given more weight (as this did not result from the observation of an obvious shortcoming or mistake by the contracting authority), and the difficulties in establishing objectively what is obviously wrong with a sample probably should have been enough relevance to provide a more conclusive answer against the acceptability of the substitution of samples.

From that perspective, confronted with a defective sample, the contracting authority could simply observe a deviation from the tender requirements, but it could hardly establish whether the defect resulted from an obvious mistake (ie whether the tenderer mistakenly submitted the wrong sample, as they claimed), or establish a way of clarifying the reasons for the defectiveness of the sample without allowing for the submission of a sample equivalent to the submission of a different tender. Differently from documents and declarations, or from the inclusion of insufficient details or mistakes in an offer, a sample is meant to evidence the product to be supplied or to result from the provision of the services. It is difficult to imagine circumstances under which a contracting authority could meet the strictures of the Manova-Slovensko case law while prompting the tenderer to submit an alternative sample. Moreover, under the rules applicable to the tender, it seems clear that a defective sample should trigger rejection of the tender, without any further analysis, which the ECJ does not seem to give much relevance to either.

Overall, I think that there is enough to justify the rejection of the possibility to substitute samples (in particular at the initiative of the tenderers) within the confines of the Manova-Slovensko test. However, I find this part of the Archus and Gama Judgment slightly confusing due to its open ended wording and, more importantly, to the practical difficulties in applying a test originally meant to correct missing or obviously erroneous information in documents to issues concerning the manifestation of technical aspects in a sample.

On this occasion, I tend to think that the ECJ has possibly pushed too far in trying to create procedural flexibility. While the absence of a sample could have allowed for the contracting authority to request the submission of one (because the problem with the tender would have been obvious), an attempt by the tenderers to substitute a previously submitted sample raises a whole host of other issues. In cases such as this, it may be preferable to have a clear cut rule against the possibility to substitute the sample. Moreover, given that the tender documents had explicitly indicated that rejection of the sample would also imply the rejection of the offer, it is difficult to understand why the ECJ has deviated from its previous approach to imposing compliance with the specific rules created in the tender documentation by the contracting authority itself (not that I find it always or generally convincing (see eg here), but a deviation from that approach seems to create inconsistency). Thus, I do not think this part of the Archus and Gama Judgment deserves a positive assessment.

Clarification of the scope of active standing under the remedies directive

In relation to a rather distinct aspect of the same case, the ECJ was also asked to clarify "whether Article 1(3) of [the Utilities Remedies Directive] must be interpreted as meaning that the concept of ‘a particular contract’ ... refers to a specific public procurement procedure or the actual subject matter of the contract which is to be awarded following a public procurement procedure, in a situation where only two tenders have been submitted and where the tenderer whose tender has been rejected may be regarded as having an interest in seeking the rejection of the tender of the other tenderer and, as a result, the initiation of a new public procurement procedure" (para 47).

Maybe in simpler words, the question concerned whether the EU rules grant legal standing to challenge a procurement decision to disappointed tenderers that are found to be properly excluded and, rather than seeking a remedy concerning the award of the contract as part of the procedure where the dispute arose (which would not be possible), may rather be interested in the cancellation of that procedure and the start of a fresh tender. In the end, the clarification concerned the tenability under EU law of a position that interpreted that "an economic operator who has submitted a tender in a public procurement procedure does not, where his tender is rejected, have an interest in bringing proceedings against the decision awarding the public contract" (para 48).

The answer provided by the ECJ is narrowly tailored to the specific circumstances of the case, as it established that "in a situation ... in which ... two tenders have been submitted and the contracting authority has adopted two simultaneous decisions rejecting the offer of one tenderer and awarding the contract to the other, the unsuccessful tenderer who brings an action against those two decisions must be able to request the exclusion of the tender of the successful tenderer, so that the concept of ‘a particular contract’ within the meaning of Article 1(3) of [the Utilities Remedies Directive] may, where appropriate, apply to the possible initiation of a new public procurement procedure" (para 59).

This interpretation seems generally uncontroversial and follows the same path of extension of the justiciability of exclusion and qualitative selection grounds as the recent Marina del Mediterráneo Judgment (see here). However, it also seems very limited to circumstances that may be difficult to meet in practice in a large number of procedures, such as the fact that only two tenderers participated in the procedure, or that the decisions to reject one tender and award the contract to the other were adopted simultaneously. In that regard, the ECJ could have been slightly bolder and simply clarified that retaining the possibility of being awarded a contract under the same (administrative) procedure is not a pre-requisite for the recognition of active standing to challenge procurement procedures under the EU rules. I would have preferred this broader approach, which could have saved future preliminary references on the basis of cases with minor variations of the underlying factual scenario.

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].

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his Opinion, AG Campos stresses that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This leads him to suggest to the Court to declare that 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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