Legislation introduced by the provincial government will help bring an end to the days when B.C. could be used by shell companies and other legal entities to anonymously hide wealth, evade taxes and launder money.
The land owner transparency act, when passed, will establish a public registry of beneficial owners of property in B.C., meaning true ownership will no longer be hidden. The act will require corporations, trusts and partnerships, which currently own or buy land, to disclose their beneficial owners in the registry. Corporations, trusts and partnerships that fail to disclose could face fines of up to $100,000 or 15% of the assessed property value, whichever is greater.
In 2016, Transparency International Canada released a report indicating that nearly one-third of the 100 most valuable residential properties in Greater Vancouver were owned by shell companies. Data leaks, such as the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, have provided further examples of how loopholes have left Canada exposed.
British Columbia’s new beneficial ownership registry is Canada’s first publicly searchable registry of its kind. Information, including names of all corporate interest holders, beneficial owners or partners, will be publicly searchable through the registry. Tax authorities, law enforcement agencies and relevant regulators will have access to more detailed information and may use it to crack down on tax evasion, fraud and money laundering.
In addition, the B.C. government is introducing amendments to the Business Corporations Act to crack down on tax evasion and money laundering by requiring private companies to hold accurate and up-to-date information about the true owners of their shares, and eliminating bearer shares, which are unregistered shares owned by the certificate holder.
Land owner transparency registry
The land owner transparency act will end hidden ownership of real estate by creating a publicly accessible registry on beneficial ownership in real estate.
Information about property owned by individuals is already transparent in B.C., and the names of owners can be searched through the Land Title and Survey Authority. However, beneficial ownership structures have increasingly been used to hide the identities of owners in real estate.
Beneficial ownership refers to indirect ownership of a property or a corporation. An example would be when one numbered company is owned or controlled by another numbered company, but the true owner of both companies is the same person. Hidden ownership through shell companies like this may be used by money launderers and other criminals.
The act will require that beneficial ownership of properties be recorded:
- At the time of legal transfer of a property.
- For all existing property owners with beneficial ownership (within a timeframe to be prescribed by regulation).
- For any subsequent changes in the beneficial owners.
Corporations, trusts and partnerships that fail to disclose will be subject to administrative penalties of up to $50,000, or 5% of the assessed property value, and for criminal offences up to $100,000, or 15% of the assessed property value.
The Land Title and Survey Authority will administer the new transparency registry through its website. Similar to land titles, basic property information, including names of all corporate interest holders, beneficial owners or partners, will be publicly accessible.
Tax authorities, law enforcement and regulatory agencies will have access to more detailed information, such as the nature of their beneficial interest, place of residence, citizenship, tax number and information about the person completing the report.
The registry will be self-funded through fees for filing and for searching. The Ministry of Finance will be responsible for enforcement. The Canada Revenue Agency will have access to information and may use it to crack down on tax evasion.
The registry will be operational next year, on the date the act comes into force.
Business Corporations Act
Amendments to the Business Corporations Act will require private companies to keep and maintain records on beneficial owners. The private company’s transparency register must include registered owners, beneficial owners and owners that have indirect control (such as through an intermediary corporation). Tax authorities, police and certain regulators will be able to access a private company’s transparency register as part of their work to crack down on white collar crime.