Courts Limit Administration’s Discretion in Public Contracts

Recent rulings by two administrative courts in Italy have restricted the discretion of public entities in the award of public contracts without open procurement procedures, in particular in the healthcare sector. The two decisions reaffirm the Courts’ policy of restricting recourse to in-house contracts and extensions of expired contracts.

The first decision, issued on May 7, 2015 by the Supreme Administrative Court in Rome, invalidated the award of a service contract to a company established and owned by the regional government of Puglia for the provision of in-house services to healthcare facilities in the region. The contract was awarded without a public procurement procedure, on the basis of the fact that it was an in-house service contract. The Court, deciding upon an appeal brought by a competitor who was not granted the possibility to submit its offer, held that a procurement procedure open to competitors must always occur, even if a governmental entity has established a specific vehicle for the purpose of providing in-house services. The Court left a limited room for in-house services, i.e., services provided by an entity fully controlled and managed by the same administration awarding the contract, as if it was one of its internal departments.

On a different occasion, the regional administrative Court of Turin had the chance to reiterate that the extension of expired public contracts is prohibited by public procurement legislation, as it prevents competitors from participating in new public procurement procedures. In addition to stating again this general principle, the Court in its decision of April 3, 2015 no. 573 also held that governmental entities should proceed with calls for tenders whenever the goods or services they intend to procure are not covered by a national or regional framework agreement. In an effort to curb public spending, the Italian government has implemented in several sectors a centralized negotiation process, whereby a central governmental agency (“Consip”) enters into framework agreements for the supply of goods and services to local administrations. Local administrations are generally bound to adhere to such framework agreements and, if they do so, no call for tender needs to be issued. Public hospitals, on the other hand, must adhere to healthcare-specific regional framework agreements and to Consip agreements; only if no such agreements exist they may proceed with the issuance of a call for tenders.

In the case the before the Court, a local healthcare office postponed the validity of an expired supply contract, after assessing that the framework agreement entered into by Consip would have only partially covered the needs of the local administration and – most importantly – would have entailed a higher cost than the expired agreement. Regardless of the potential savings that the extension of the existing contract would have granted the public administration, the Court held that no exceptions can be envisaged to the issuance of a public procurement procedure. Clearly, more than by savings, the Court must have been guided by the desire to sanction a widespread practice of extending expired contracts, which in most cases stifles competition and does not guarantee lower prices.

It is expected that this policy, increasingly adopted by many administrative Courts, will be one of the highlights of the new public procurement legislation that is currently being examined by Italian lawmakers. The new public procurement code is, in fact, expected to provide new instruments for a more effective fight against corruption and inefficiencies within the public administration.

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