A strange Scottish case on evaluation of tenders -- Boston Sci. Ltd v Common Service Agency [2016] CSOH 132

I find the recent Scottish case Boston Scientific Limited v The Common Service Agency [2016] CSOH 132 most confusing. This is a case of healthcare-related procurement whereby the Scottish NHS' central purchasing body, the Common Service Agency, was tendering framework contracts for the supply of certain types of medical equipment--for simplicity, pacemakers and implantable defibrillators.

The litigation concerned the applicable award criteria and the ensuing evaluation of the tender submitted by Boston Scientific Limited. Even if the case seems to be decided mainly on procedural grounds (the claimant, or pursuer in Scottish terminology, seemed to have been time-barred in raising a challenge against the published award criteria), it raises substantive issues that, in my view, should have been dealt with differently by the Court.

The tender had been advertised and the relevant invitation to tender (ITT) had published the applicable award criteria. For each of the lots in which the framework agreement was to be divided, the tenders would be assessed against a pass/fail criterion of essential features (ie mandatory technical specifications) and then evaluated on a 60:20:20 split of the maximum score of 100. The offered price would carry a 60% weight, whereas two quality criteria would carry 20% each: (a) the inclusion of certain defined desirable features and (b) the longevity of the devices.

The challenge was based on Boston Scientific's submission that the assessment of the longevity of the pacemakers must have been wrong. In a nutshell, Boston Scientific claimed that their position as market leaders and the existence of independent tests that demonstrated that their devices had a very long individual life led them to the conclusion that 'there must have been a failure to compare like with like because if there had not been such a failure [Boston Scientific] would have had the highest longevity scores' [para 15]. In short, the tenderer was not convinced that its competitors could (truthfully) have offered devices with a superior longevity.

Boston Scientific's submission of improper technical evaluation of the tenders is complicated by two additional factors. First, that tenderers had only been asked to declare (or self-certify) the longevity of their devices without providing any supporting evidence. Second, that the criteria applicable to the evaluation of the longevity component were not all that clear.

Self-certification of verifiable technical characteristics?

On the first issue, the complaint considers that the contracting authority was not allowed to include as award criteria elements based on pure self-declaration and which it intended not to verify. Indeed, the case seems peculiar because the Common Service Agency 'had stated clearly prior to the date for submission of tenders that supporting evidence was not sought.  It had protected itself in a different way by making clear that the framework agreement would include a clawback provision if battery life fell short of the figure submitted in a tender' [para 18].

This seems to me to be a peculiar way of conducting business because the longevity of devices that need to be implanted in the human body seems a rather important technical characteristic (as submitted by Boston Scientific, but dismissed by Lord Tyre in his Opinion, despite the relevance of this issue for the purposes of EU consumer law as discussed here), and the abrogation of the power to check compliance with technical specifications in this regard seems odd, regardless of the inclusion of financial penalties in the contract. The Judgment relies on two English precedents that would support the legality of relying on self-certification of compliance with contractual terms. Most importantly, it ignores the EU precedent in EVN and Wienstrom (C-448/01, EU:C:2003:651), to which one of the English cases refers, though. A reference to EVN paras [50]-[51] would have sufficed to quash the award procedure (I am thankful to Karen Wontner and Erik Plas for having raised this point in private correspondence).

First, Lord Tyre relies on Public Interest Lawyers v Legal Services Commission [2012] EWHC 3277 (Admin), Cranston J at para [64] to justify the acceptability of self-certification. However, in my view, this precedent is inapplicable here. First, because it concerned an on-going requirement to be discharged during the execution of the contract (ie an element closer to a contract performance clause than a technical requirement) but, most importantly, because in the previous paragraph of that speech Cranston J stressed that 

... the principle behind its decision was the need to ensure the equal treatment of tenderers through the objective and uniform application of the criteria in their assessment. The principle applies whether or not the public authority is able to verify the criteria. If it is able but omits to do so, that is as much a breach of the duty as if it sets criteria which cannot be verified. That is because the outcome may be an inequality of treatment of tenderers through the equal treatment of unequals, i.e. the equal treatment of those meeting and those failing to meet the tender requirements. After all, it is trite law that equality of treatment means not only treating like cases alike but unlike cases differently [at 63].

And this led Cranston J [at para 65] to insist on the need for robust verification where the contracting authority relies on self-certification by the tenderers. This is important in the context of the Boston Scientific v Common Service Agency dispute because, this case, 'Although it was accepted that in some cases a contracting authority might have a duty to validate information provided by a tenderer, this was not such a case. The defender did not have the means to verify independently the figures for longevity provided by tenderers' [para 18]. The issue here would have been whether this inability of independent verification (a) covered a complete lack of engagement with existing technical information and (b) was not attributable to the contracting authority itself and its decisions on how to organise the procurement procedure. Generally, one would expect that the entity running framework contracts for medical supplies has (or has access to) necessary technical knowledge in any case. Thus, this point of the case remains obscure and, in my opinion, shows excessive deference to the contracting authority.

Second, Lord Tyre relies on Parker Rhodes Hickmotts Solicitors v Legal Services Commission [2011] EWHC 1323 (Admin), McCombe J at paras [35]-[40], which in turn refers back to Public Interest Lawyers v Legal Services Commission. The difficulty with this second case is that its ratio rests on the construction or interpretation of the tender documentation, rather than an assessment of the requirements of the principle of non-discrimination of tenderers--which was the legal basis for the challenge in Boston Scientific. Importantly, in Parker Rhodes, the relevant part of the Judgment focuses on the fact that the Information for Applicants (IFA) document had not indicated how the contracting authority would proceed to verifying specific aspects of the offers, which the Court considered to cover the possibility of relying on self-certification.

To me, this makes both precedents irrelevant for (if not contradictory to) the assessment of the claims raised by Boston Scientific, which aimed to strike down the procurement process on the basis that the contracting authority had appended a significant weight to a criterion it actually decided not to verify at all. In my view, there are good arguments under the principle of good administration (Art 41 CFR) to demand that contracting authorities only evaluate what they can assess and, even more, that they do not claim not to be in a position to assess technical characteristics of the products they are buying--if nothing else, by reliance on the rules on test reports, certification and other means of proof (now under Art 44 Dir 2014/24/EU). 

Longevity, price, both or none of the above?

Additionally, and focusing on the point of the need to construct or interpret the tender documents as published, the second argument raised by Boston Scientific deserves attention as well because, indeed, the criteria applicable to the evaluation of the longevity component were not all that clear. In that regard, it must be noted that the ITT had established that:

In relation to longevity, the tender receiving the highest total longevity score would receive 20 points.  Each other tender would receive “20‑X points where X = 0.2 x the percentage by which each price in each tender exceeded the lowest price tender achieving the lowest total price score” (Boston Scientific v Common Service Agency, para [5], emphasis added).

This seems odd because the criterion that is aimed at scoring longevity is (or, at least, seems to be) referential to the price of all tenders except that of the tender with (self-certified) longer individual device life. In my view, this is a breach of the general scoring rule included in the ITT, according to which price would carry a weight of 60%. This would not be true except for the tender self-certifying highest longevity, and all other offers' price would be taken into account twice (once for the price component itself, and a second time for the scoring of longevity). This is, simply, technically incorrect and, in my view, should have sufficed to cancel the tender.

However, this does not seem to be the whole story and a mistake must have happened in the preparation of the ITT (there seems to be an obvious explanation if one thinks in terms of copy and paste ...) because, in a debriefing letter, the contracting authority had indicated to Boston Scientific that:

The weighting for Longevity was 20% therefore in each lot the longest longevity submitted received 20 points. The scoring guidance in section 3.3 clearly identifies the points allocated to longevity and how the tender would be scored ... (i.e. if one product had longevity or 100 months (longest) it would score 20 points and if a different product submitted had a longevity of 50 months it would score 10 points)  (Boston Scientific v Common Service Agency, para [10], emphasis added).

Now, this is the natural understanding of a relative scoring for longevity, but it happens not to be the scoring rule disclosed in the ITT, which made reference to relative prices rather than relative longevity. Such a substantial deviation between disclosed scoring rule (even if absurd) and its application seems to run against the basic requirements of the principles of transparency and equal treatment, as recently recast by the Court of Justice of the European Union in TNS Dimarso (for a comment, see here).

In my view, this should also have been taken into account by the Court and, rather than dismissing the challenge, Lord Tyre should have sought to understand better whether the longevity criterion had been assessed as the debriefing letter said, or rather as the ITT established (which could have led to abnormal results ultimately preventing Boston Scientific from making much sense of the scores obtained). Most likely, a divergence between the published scoring rules and the actual evaluation of the tender should have led to a cancellation of the award in any case.

Overall, I think that there are two main problems with the Judgment in Boston Scientific v Common Service Agency, and both of them seem to me to result from a lack of engagement with the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union by the Scottish court. First, because it is truly abnormal to allow for self-certification of a technical requirement that can be assessed and verified by the contracting authority--at least, by reference to technical documents. Second, because it is also truly remarkable that a contracting authority can evaluate tenders in a way that deviates from the published criteria without the reviewing court picking up on this important aspect (or anomaly) of the process. Ultimately, in my opinion, this is a strange case. But also a very technically deficient Judgment and an incorrect decision.