On Tuesday, judgment was handed down in the interesting case of Mears Limited v Leeds City Council, which concerned a procurement for the maintenance of public housing stock. The case illustrates some of the rocks on which an evaluation process might founder and provides a helpful practical application of the recent line of cases around disclosure of award criteria. It also provides useful guidance on how contracting authorities might best structure evaluation schemes so as to avoid potential breaches of the procurement regulations.
Leeds ran a competitive dialogue process for tenders to maintain its public housing stock. The process contained several stages. The claimant, Mears, was successful in getting through the initial selection phase, but was unsuccessful in reaching the final bid phase. The assessment of the bids involved three elements which would later prove to be contentious:
- an Evaluation Table, divided into several sections, with each section containing several questions. Each overall section was given a weighting, but within each section, no weightings were given to individual questions. Before the bid deadline, a bidder asked for clarification as to how each question would be weighted and was simply referred back to the Evaluation Table itself (in which each section of questions had an overall weighting). The claimant argued that the questions amounted to separate sub-criteria that should have been weighted, and that this was a breach by Leeds.
- internal Scoring Guidance, which suggested that, this being a competitive dialogue process, full marks on certain elements could be reserved for those bids which showed innovation or exceeded the specification in some way. The claimant argued, following the findings in Letting International v London Borough of Newham, that the failure to tell bidders that full marks could only be obtained by exceeding the stated requirements was non-transparent and was therefore a breach of the regulations.
- internal Model Answers, which gave guidance to evaluators as to what might be expected in answers to the questions in the Evaluation Table. The claimant argued that the content of these Model Answers amounted to separate criteria which should have been disclosed.
An interesting precursor to this hearing is that there was a previous trial in January of this year to decide whether the internal Model Answers should be disclosed to the claimant. Mears became aware of the existence of these Model Answers during the feedback stage, when Leeds explained that marks had been lost because answers do not hit Model Answers. Leeds then refused to disclose the Model Answers during the feedback stage on the grounds that to do so would defeat the purpose of the procurement and result in identical, 'tick box' answers from all the bidders, between which it would then be impossible to distinguish. The court recognised this as a legitimate concern, but also held that it was essential to Mears' case that Mears had sight of the Model Answers, and ordered disclosure within a 'confidentiality ring', to Mears' named representative and solicitors only. This illustrates the dangers of unwittingly providing 'ammunition' to bidders during the feedback stage (although of course it can always be argued that bidders will have a right to a wide range of information via a Freedom of Information Act request in any case).
Turning back to the recent hearing, the judge first looked back at the leading recent cases around evaluation and summarised the current state of the law. Criteria, sub-criteria and weightings need to be disclosed to bidders upfront in order that bidders can prepare the bid with an understanding as to how it will be assessed and what the contracting authority's requirements are. There are however a couple of situations where a contracting authority is justified in not disclosing a criterion; first, because it does not, on a reasonable view, introduce different or new criteria, sub-criteria or weightings; or secondly, because it could not have affected the tenders in any event.
In the light of this, the judge decided that:
- the unweighted questions in the Evaluation Table did amount to sub-criteria and should have been weighted. Bidders may well have bidded differently had they understood the relative importance of each question. This was therefore a breach by Leeds.
- on the evidence, the Scoring Guidance was guidance only and although it suggested that innovative bids might score top marks, it was not impossible to score full marks without innovation. As such this was not a matter that needed to have been disclosed to bidders. The judge seems to have been influenced by the fact that this was a competitive dialogue process where bidders should expect that a contracting authority is looking for offers of individual and potentially innovative solutions. Perhaps his view would have been different had this been a more simple process under the open or restricted procedures.
- a couple of the Model Answers did amount to undisclosed award criteria and therefore this was a breach by Leeds. But, those two answers excepted, there was no requirement to disclose the Model Answers as the majority of them were not award criteria or sub-criteria and were merely guidance. The judge seems to have accepted that there should not be a general rule to disclose Model Answers as this would create ?identikit? bids which it would become impossible to evaluate. However he warned that Model Answers must be scrutinised to ensure that they do not contain award criteria or sub-criteria which have not otherwise been disclosed.
Having established that there had indeed been some breaches by Leeds, the judge went on to consider whether the claimant had actually suffered any loss which needed to be remedied. Leeds argued that Mears would still not have obtained a high enough score to advance further in the process even if the breaches had not taken place. But the judge decided Mears only needed to demonstrate more than a 'fanciful chance' of being successful had it had access to the information that Leeds had not disclosed, and decided this test was met.
The judge finally looked at what remedy ought to be given to Mears the choice being to award damages, or to order the re-running of the procurement, or indeed both the court having a discretion to decide on a remedy under the procurement regulations. He decided that there was a strong public interest issue, in that Leeds would be left without contracts to maintain its social housing, and on that basis that only damages should be awarded and that the procurement should be allowed to stand.
The case is reassuring to contracting authorities that in general model answers are not disclosable in advance provided they do not introduce new criteria; this has been a troubling question in the light of the recent trend in case law to insist on disclosure of award criteria, sub-criteria and in some cases sub-sub-criteria. Contracting authorities would be well advised to ensure that evaluation aids such as model answers and scoring guides, if they are not to be disclosed, do not contain new criteria and are expressly stated to be for guidance only and not prescriptive. Of more concern to contracting authorities is the fact that the case also demonstrates that, where breaches are established, the claimant does not need to show that it would have definitely won the contract had the breaches not taken place; the more than a fanciful chance test is not a great hurdle for a claimant to surmount once a technical breach has been established by the court.