Dr Albert Sanchez Graells, School of Law, University of Leicester
In its recent Judgment of 23 January 2015 in Energy Solutions EU Ltd v Nuclear Decommissioning Authority  EWHC 73 (TCC), the High Court ruled on a preliminary issue in a public procurement dispute and held that the review court has no discretion (not) to grant damages for losses resulting from a breach of the public procurement rules. In my view, the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment should be criticised at least for two reasons: firstly, because it misinterprets the EU rules on public procurement remedies and their link with the general principle of State liability for breaches of EU law; and secondly, because it creates an analytical framework based on the commercial decisions of disappointed bidders that would result in excessive (strategic) claims for damages. Moreover, the Energy Solutions v NDA Judgment sheds light on an important shortcoming of the system of public procurement remedies that is perpetuated under the recently adopted Public Contracts Regulations 2015 (SI 2015/102). This comment addresses these issues in turn.
The dispute arises after Energy Solutions (as part of a bidding consortium, but that is not relevant for our purposes) was not chosen as the winning bidder in a tender for a nuclear waste management contract with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). After expressing its disagreement with the award decision and seeking additional information in the ensuing debriefing process, Energy Solutions eventually challenged the tender procedure within the 30-day limit applicable under reg.47D(2) of the applicable Public Contracts Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/5, as amended, primarily by SI2009/2992). By the time the challenge was effected, NDA had already entered into a contract with the winning bidder. Energy Solutions sought compensation for the damages it alleged to have suffered as a result of the improper conduct of the tender procedure.
NDA tried to bar the damages action by arguing that a failure to challenge the award decision within the 10-day standstill period provided for under reg.32(3) Public Contracts Regulations 2006 (which could have prevented it from entering into the contract) broke the causal link between any breach of the applicable procurement rules and the ensuing damages (which, If any, would then derive from the tardiness of the challenge). NDA basically claimed that having foregone the possibility to prevent the award of the contract to another tenderer by activating the suspension foreseen in reg. 47G Public Contracts Regulations 2006, Energy Solutions had also lost the possibility to seek damages compensation. In support of that position, NDA submitted that, under reg.47J(2)(c) Public Contracts Regulations 2006, the review court retained discretion (not) to award damages resulting from a breach of public procurement rules in circumstances such as those in the case (ie the lost opportunity of litigating within the standstill period).
The High Court ruled against NDA on both points. Edwards-Stuart J found no basis for the
submission that any award of damages is dependent on the level of gravity of the breach, or any other such factor, and thus dependent on an exercise of judicial “discretion” or judgment, or whether, absent any failure to mitigate its loss, having proved a breach of the [public procurement rules] a claimant is entitled to anything other than damages that should be assessed by reference to ordinary principles. It may well be that the claimant’s conduct will have been such that the court will be very reluctant to make any assumptions in its favour in relation to damages, but that is simply an aspect of the usual approach of the court to the assessment of damages (para 86).
As mentioned above, this finding is open to criticism, both for its inconsistency with EU law and because it creates an analytical framework that may result in excessive claims for damages. Each of these issues is addressed in turn. The problem derived from the diverging duration of the standstill period and the time limit for the challenge of award decisions is discussed last, as it also affects the brand new Public Contracts Regulations 2015. Continue reading