Plans for a fast ferry between Malta and Gozo face further delay, as the Court of Appeal ruled that the selection of the service provider must follow public procurement regulations.

Chief Justice Joseph Azzopardi nullified a decision by the Public Contracts Review Board, which had found that Gozo Channel did not necessarily have to abide by public procurement rules when selecting a partner for its fast ferry venture.

As a public entity, Gozo Channel was bound to follow strict public procurement rules when awarding contracts, the Court of Appeal ruled. It ordered the review board to re-evaluate the objections made by Virtu Ferries, which is vying for the contract.

Virtu Ferries, a private catamaran service provider, is protesting Gozo Channel’s decision to choose a fast ferry bid  made by Islands Ferry Network, a joint venture between Magro Brothers and the owners of the Fortina Hotel.

According to Virtu Ferries, Gozo Channel abused its position because the successful bidder failed to meet the required technical and financial criteria to provide the service.

The contracts review body had concluded that it had no jurisdiction on the case, accepting legal arguments by both Gozo Channel and Islands Ferry Network that this was not a public tender proper but, rather, a different selection process, under different rules.

However, the Court of Appeal dismissed these arguments, insisting that a contract awarded by a State company was a public tender and had to follow strict rules.

The saga, which has been going on for over two years will now have to go back to the drawing board, with the PCRB deciding whether Gozo Channel’s selection was made according to the rule book.

According to Virtu, Island Ferries Network could not even qualify for the selection made by Gozo Channel as it had “no experience whatsoever” in the provision of fast-ferry services, as demanded in the state entity’s offer.

Virtu is arguing that the selection of the Magro/Zammit Tabona joint venture was “vitiated” and decided upon “merits” which were outside the commercial sphere.

Both Gozo Channel and Islands Ferry Network refute these arguments, saying the most advantageous offer had been selected.

The company eventually selected to offer fast ferry services will be in line to receive millions in taxpayer contributions for chartering fast ferry vessels to Gozo Channel over a five-year period.