Antydningene om at presidenten i EFTA-domstolen, Pall Hreinsson, kan være inhabil i Fosen-linjen-saken er blitt tilbakevist – uten nærmere begrunnelse. Det fremgår av et notat Anbud365 har fått tilgang til. Bakgrunnen for antydningene om inhabilitet er et oppslag i VG sammenholdt med Hreinsson bidrag i EFTA-domstolens årlige nyhetsbrev for 2018. Et planlagt høringsmøte i forbindelse med vurderinger i saken EFTA-domstolen er bedt om å komme med, er utsatt flere ganger.
Sakens bakgrunn er en tvist mellom fergeselskapet Fosenlinjen AS og transportselskapet AtB AS, eid av Sør-Trøndelag Fylkeskommune. Fosenlinjen mente seg uriktig forbigått i en anbudskonkurranse om fergetjenester, fordi AtB hadde unnlatt å stille dokumentasjonskrav for anslått drivoljeforbruk i tilbudene. Fosenlinjen AS gikk til sak mot AtB med krav om erstatning for positiv kontraktsinteresse. Siden har saken versert i rettssystemet.
Nå står saken for Høyesterett som har bedt EFTA-domstolen om en uttalelse om hvilke vilkår som skal gjelde for å få tilkjent erstatning for positiv kontraktsinteresse ved brudd på anskaffelsesreglene. Da saken tidligere sto for lagmannsretten ble domstolen spurt om det samme – da uttalte EFTA-domstolen at det holdt at en feil var gjort – ikke nødvendigvis en vesentlig feil.
I forbindelse med at saken igjen er til uttalelse i EFTA-domstolen ble det berammet et høringsmøte 21. mars. 12. mars ble deltakerne i møtet varslet om at høringen ville bli utsatt. Dagen etter spurte Fosen-Linjen om årsakene til at høringen var utsatt, og spesielt hvorfor partene ikke var blitt hørt før beslutningen om å utsette ble tatt.
Nytt høringsmøte ble satt til 12. mai, og i en henvendelse fra Fosen-Linjen til partene i den planlagte høringen ble det uttrykt uro for utviklingen i saken. Vil det bli en fair og rettferdig behandlet, ble det spurt fra Fosen-Linjens side med henvisning til domstolens sammensetning i lys av et oppslag i VG i forbindelse med høringen. Da dommer Per Christiansen var forhindret, ble Ola Mestad – jussprofessor ved Universitetet i Oslo, innkalt som dommer i Christiansens fravær. Mestad er fast ad hoc-dommer.
Vurdering av lovlighet
Mestad og Bernd Hammermann, dommer i EFTA-domstolen, har levert sin vurdering av lovligheten av domstolens sammensetning, spesielt når det gjelder uavhengighet og habilitet (se nedenfor). Med EFTA-domstolens sentrale posisjon i EØS-avtalen, tåles ikke et tap av tillit. Er det mistanke om slikt, trengs det å handles raskt. De henter hva som skal vurderes i hvilken rekkefølge fra den europeiske menneskerettighets-domstolen. Kriteriet er at om en rettferdig, tenkende og informert person, etter å ha vurdert faktum, konkluderer med at det er en reell mulighet at dommeren er partisk, må dommeren fratre.
Fosen-Linjen har i sine henvendelser reist spørsmålet om det er en mulig mangel på partiskhet i den behandlingen som nå foregår, både samlet og individuelt med domstolens sammensetning. Spesielt, ifølge Fosen-Linjen, gjelder det president Pall Hreinsson. Det har gjelder presidentens uttalelser i domstolens årlige nyhetsbrev for 2018, som, skriver Fosen-Linjen, lest i sammenheng med avisoppslaget. Nettopp dette bekymrer Fosen-Linjen, som derfor er engstelig for at saken får en rettferdig behandling. Kanskje, også heter det fra Fosen-Linjen, kaster VG-oppslaget nytt lys over avgjørelsen om å utsette høringen.
Hammermann og Mestad konkluderer med, etter en grundig vurdering av Fosen-Linjens henvendelse og med respekt for gjeldende regelverk, at EFTA-domstolens president Pall Hreinsson, full ut imøtekommer de nødvendige krav til habilitet i Fosen-Linjen-saken.
Alle betraktninger omkring behovet for uavhengighet og habilitet hos dommere, om beskyttelse av borgerne og den demokratiske orden, henger som man ser, i luften. Dette er fordi de to dommerne ikke gir noen berettigelse for sine funn for at Hreinsson ikke er partisk overfor kravene fra Fosen-selskapene. Med andre ord, Hreinsson er rett og slett frikjent av to av sine kollegaer på tross av at det finnes klare og bestemte tegn på partiskhet, etter hva Anbud365 kjenner til. Dette betyr igjen at uansett hvordan Fosen-saken faller ut i EFTA-domstolen, vil det bli stilt spørsmål ved dens verdi.
Vurderingen gjort av de to dommerne, Ola Mestad og Bernd Hammermann, i sin helhet:
- By letter of 19 November 2018, registered at the Court as Case E-7/18 on 19 November 2018, the Supreme Court of Norway (Norges Høyesterett), requested an Advisory Opinion in the case pending before it between Fosen-Linjen AS (“Fosen-Linjen”), supported by the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, “NHO”), and AtB AS (“AtB”).
- The case before the referring court concerns an appeal by the parties against a judgment of the Frostating Court of Appeal (Frostating lagmannsrett). By its judgment of 2 March 2018, the Frostating Court of Appeal did not uphold Fosen-Linjen’s claim for damages for its positive contract interest, although the company was granted NOK 1.5 million in damages for its negative contract interest. By decision of 19 June 2018 of the Appeals Selection Committee of the Supreme Court of Norway, leave to appeal was granted. The question posed by the referring court concerns whether Article 2(1)(c)of the Remedies Directive requires that any breach of the public procurement rules is in itself sufficient for there to be a basis of liability for positive contract interest.
- Previously, the Court has received a request for an advisory opinion in the same case from Frostating Court of Appeal. The reference from Frostating Court of Appeal was dated 24 October 2016, and registered at the Court as Case E-16/16 Fosen-Linjen AS v AtB AS (“Fosen-Linjen I”) on 31 October 2016. The Court delivered its judgment in Fosen-Linjen I on 31 October 2017.
- The hearing in the present case was scheduled to be held on 21 March 2019. By letter dated 12 March 2019 those parties who had notified the Court of their attendance at the hearing were informed that it would be postponed.
- By a letter of 13 March 2019 Fosen-Linjen enquired as to the reasons why the hearing had been postponed, and in particular why the parties had not been heard prior to the decision being taken to postpone the hearing pursuant to the second sub-paragraph of Article 42(2) RoP.
- By a letter of 13 March 2019 the Registrar replied to Fosen-Linjen that Article 42/2) was not applicable in those circumstances.
- By an email of 14 March 2019 the Registrar informed those parties who had previously notified the Court of their attendance at the hearing that the hearing date was rescheduled to 12 May 2019.
- By a letter of 10 May 2019, which was copied to those parties who had notified of their attendance at the hearing, Fosen-Linjen expressed concerns as to whether it will receive a fair trial given the present composition of the bench, including in light of an article published on 10 May 2018 concerning the upcoming hearing in the Norwegian newspaper VG.
- Since Judge Per Christiansen was prevented from sitting, ad-hoc Judge Ola Mestad was designated, in accordance with Article 30, fourth subparagraph, of the Agreement between the EFTA States on the Establishment of a Surveillance Authority and a Court of Justice (“SCA”), to complete the composition of the Court required for a decision pursuant to Article 15 of the Statute read in conjunction with Article 30, fourth subparagraph, SCA.
II Legal background
- Article 30, fourth subparagraph, SCA, read:
In case one of the Judges, in the opinion of the two other Judges, is disqualified from acting in a particular case, the two other Judges shall agree on a person to replace him chosen from a list established by common accord by the Governments of the EFTA States. If they cannot agree that person shall be chosen from the list by lot by the President. With regard to a Judge chosen in this way the rules applicable to regular Judges shall apply mutatis mutandis. In any case Article 4, second paragraph, and Article 13, of Protocol 5 shall not apply.
- Article 2 of the Statute of the Court reads:
Before taking up his duties each Judge shall, in open court, take an oath to perform his duties impartially and conscientiously and to preserve the secrecy of the deliberations of the Court.
- Article 15 of the Statute of the Court reads:
No Judge may take part in the disposal of a case in which he has previously taken part as agent or adviser or has acted for one of the parties, or in which he has been called upon to pronounce as a member of a court or tribunal, of a commission of inquiry or in any other capacity.
If, for some special reason, any Judge considers that he should not take part in the judgment or examination of a particular case, he shall so inform the President of the Court. If, for some reason, the President considers that any Judge should not sit in a particular case, he shall notify him accordingly.
Any difficulty arising as to the application of this Article shall be settled according to the fourth paragraph of Article 30 of this Agreement.
If according to this Article a Judge shall not take part in a particular case, a person to replace him shall be chosen in accordance with Article 30, fourth paragraph, of the Agreement, among those persons on the list who have been nominated by the Government which has nominated the regular Judge who is to be replaced.
A party may not apply for a change in the composition of the Court on the grounds of either nationality of a Judge or the absence from the Court of a Judge of the nationality of that party.
III Opinion of the Judges
- Any assessment of the lawfulness of the Court’s composition, particularly concerning its independence and impartiality, requires that due account is taken of several important factors. First, the principle of judicial independence is one of the fundamental values of the administration of justice. This principle is reflected inter alia, in Articles 2 and 15 of the Statute of the Court and Article 3 RoP. Second, it is vital not only that judges are independent and fair, they must also appear to be so. Third, maintaining judicial independence requires that the relevant rules for judicial appointments, as set out in Article 30 SCA, must be strictly observed. Any other approach could lead to the erosion of public confidence in the Court and thereby undermine its appearance of independence and impartiality (Decision of the Court of 14 February 2017 in Case E-21/16 Pascal Nobile, published electronically, paragraph 16).
- The provisions of the EEA Agreement are, to a great extent, intended for the benefit of individuals and economic operators throughout the European Economic Area. Therefore, the proper functioning of the Agreement is dependent on those actors being able to rely on the rights intended for their benefit (see Case E-9/97 Sveinbjörnsdóttir  EFTA Ct. Rep. 95, paragraph 58). Accordingly, Article 108(2) EEA provides that the EFTA States shall establish a court of justice. This is not only important for individuals and economic operators of the EFTA States, but also, on a reciprocal basis, for their counterparts in the EU Member States (Order of the President in Case E-21/16 Pascal Nobile,  EFTA Ct. Rep. 554, paragraph 24).
- Consequently, the Court assumes an essential role in the EEA legal order and the proper composition of the Court is key to the observance of the rights and obligations flowing from the EEA Agreement. Without an independent court, the purpose of the Agreement would be rendered nugatory and the EFTA States would fail to safeguard the protection of the rights of individuals and economic operators. To maintain the independence of the judiciary is not a privilege for judges, but a guarantee for the respect of these rights and a bulwark of the democratic order (Order of the President in Case E-21/16 Pascal Nobile, cited above, paragraph 25).
- Furthermore, any doubts raised as to the independence or impartiality of the Court demand swift resolution in order to ensure the proper functioning of the EEA Agreement and in particular the respect for its fundamental principles (Order of the President in Case E-21/16 Pascal Nobile, cited above, paragraph 27).
- Impartiality itself denotes the absence of prejudice or bias. The European Court of Human Rights has found that the existence of impartiality must be determined first, according to a subjective test, where regard must be had to the personal conviction and behaviour of a particular judge, that is, whether the judge held any personal prejudice or bias in a given case; and, second, an objective test, that is to say that by ascertaining whether the tribunal itself and, among other aspects, its composition, offered sufficient guarantees to exclude any legitimate doubt of its impartiality (ECtHR, judgment in Appl. No. 38191/12, A.K. v Liechtenstein, § 65 and the case law cited).
- As regards the subjective test, it must be recalled that the personal impartiality of a judge must be presumed until there is proof to the contrary (A.K. v Liechtenstein, cited above, § 66 and the case law cited).
- As regards the objective test, even appearances may be of a certain importance or, in other words, “justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done”. What is at stake is the confidence which the courts in a democratic society must inspire in the public (A.K. v Liechtenstein, cited above, § 67 and the case law cited).
- In other words, judicial recusal is not a matter of discretion. The test for determining apparent bias is this: if a fair-minded and informed observer, having considered the facts, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the judge was biased, the judge must be recused. That test is to be applied having regard to all the circumstances of the case.
- In its submission, Fosen-Linjen has raised the matter of a potential lack of impartiality in the present proceedings both severally and individually towards the bench. Specifically as regards President Páll Hreinsson, Fosen-Linjen has referred to statements made by the President in the Court’s Annual Newsletter 2018 “which read in conjunction with the newspaper article” add to Fosen-Linjen’s concerns about the fairness of the proceedings. In addition, Fosen-Linjen submits that the newspaper article in VG annexed to its submissions may cast a new light on the decision to postpone the hearing as communicated by the Registrar on 12 March 2019.
- Having given full and proper consideration to Fosen-Linjen’s submissions, and having regard for paragraphs 14 to 21 above, and the case-law cited, the Judges consider that President Páll Hreinsson fulfils the requisite requirements as to impartiality in Case E-7/18 Fosen-Linjen AS, supported by the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjonen, NHO) v AtB AS.
On those grounds,
JUDGE BERND HAMMERMANN
JUDGE OLA MESTAD
give the following decision
President Páll Hreinsson fulfills the requisite requirements as to impartiality in Case E-7/18 Fosen-Linjen AS, supported by the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (Næringslivets Hovedorganisasjon, NHO) v AtB AS.
Bernd Hammermann Ola Mestad
Luxembourg, 11 May 2019
Ólafur Jóhannes Einarsson Bernd Hammermann