Public contract award procedures

July 15th, 2016

In Case C-6/15, TNS Dimarso NV v Vlaams Gewest, Judgment on Bastille Day 2016, the ECJ has held that Article 53(2) of Directive 2004/18/EC on the coordination of procedures for the award of public works contracts, public supply contracts and public service contracts, read in the light of the principle of equal treatment and of the consequent obligation of transparency, must be interpreted as meaning that, in the case of a public service contract to be awarded pursuant to the criterion of the most economically advantageous tender in the opinion of the contracting authority, that authority is not required to bring to the attention of potential tenderers, in the contract notice or the tender specifications relating to the contract at issue, the method of evaluation used by the contracting authority in order to specifically evaluate and rank the tenders. However, that method may not have the effect of altering the award criteria and their relative weighting.

The ECJ stated the principles as follows:-

“… it should be noted that where the contracting authority decides to award a contract to the most economically advantageous tender, under Article 53(2) of Directive 2004/18, it must specify in the contract notice or the tender specification the relative weighting it gives to each of the award criteria chosen in order to determine the most economically advantageous tender. That weighting may be expressed by providing for a range with an appropriate maximum spread. Where, in the opinion of the contracting authority, weighting is not possible for demonstrable reasons, the contracting authority shall indicate in the contract notice or tender specifications or, in the case of a competitive dialogue, in the descriptive document, the criteria in descending order of importance.

As stated in recital 46 of Directive 2004/18, the purpose of those requirements is to enable all tenderers to be reasonably informed of the criteria and arrangements which will be applied to identify the most economically advantageous tender. In addition, they reflect the duty of the contracting authorities under Article 2 of the directive to treat economic operators equally and non-discriminatorily and to act in a transparent way.

According to settled case-law, the principle of equal treatment and the obligation of transparency entail, in particular, that tenderers must be in a position of equality both when they formulate their tenders and when those tenders are being assessed by the contracting authority …

Thus, the Court has held that the subject matter of each contract and the criteria governing its award must be clearly defined from the beginning of the award procedure … and that a contracting authority cannot apply, by way of award criteria, sub-criteria which it has not previously brought to the tenderers’ attention … Similarly, the contracting authority must interpret the award criteria in the same way throughout the procedure …

Those requirements apply, in principle, mutatis mutandis to contracting authorities’ obligation to indicate, in the contract notice or the tender specifications, the ‘relative weighting’ of each of the award criteria. Thus, the Court has held that a contracting authority may not, in principle, apply weighting rules which it has not previously brought to the tenderers’ attention …

In particular, the relative weighting of each of the award criteria must, subject to the third subparagraph of Article 53(2) of Directive 2004/18, be clearly defined from the beginning of the award procedure, thus enabling tenderers to establish objectively the actual importance given to an award criterion relative to another during their subsequent evaluation by the contracting authority. Similarly, the relative weighting of each of the award criteria cannot be changed throughout the procedure.

Nonetheless, the Court has accepted that it is possible for a contracting authority to determine, after expiry of the time limit for submitting tenders, weighting factors for the sub-criteria which correspond in essence to the criteria previously brought to the tenderers’ attention, provided that three conditions are met, namely that that subsequent determination, first, does not alter the criteria for the award of the contract set out in the tender specifications or contract notice; secondly, does not contain elements which, if they had been known at the time the tenders were prepared, could have affected their preparation; and, thirdly, was not adopted on the basis of matters likely to give rise to discrimination against one of the tenderers …

However, neither Article 53(2) of Directive 2004/18 nor any other provision thereof lays down an obligation on the contracting authority to bring to the attention of potential tenderers, by publication in the contract notice or in the tender specifications, the method of evaluation applied by the contracting authority in order to effectively evaluate and assess the tenders in the light of the award criteria of the contract and of their relative weighting established in advance in the documentation relating to the contract in question.

Nor is such a general obligation apparent from the case-law of the Court.

The Court has held that an evaluation committee must be able to have some leeway in carrying out its task and, thus, it may, without amending the contract award criteria set out in the tender specifications or the contract notice, structure its own work of examining and analysing the submitted tenders …

That leeway is also justified by practical considerations. The contracting authority must be able to adapt the method of evaluation that it will apply in order to assess and rank the tenders in accordance with the circumstances of the case.

In accordance with the principles governing the award of contracts provided for in Article 2 of Directive 2004/18 and in order to avoid any risk of favouritism, the method of evaluation applied by the contracting authority in order to specifically evaluate and rank the tenders cannot, in principle, be determined after the opening of the tenders by the contracting authority. However, in the event that the determination of that method is not possible for demonstrable reasons before the opening of the tenders … the contracting authority cannot be criticised for having established it only after that authority, or its evaluation committee, reviewed the content of the tenders.

In any event, pursuant to the principles governing the award of contracts … the determination by the contracting authority of the method of evaluation after the publication of the contract notice or the tender specifications cannot have the effect of altering the award criteria or their relative weighting.”

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