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B.C. lifts fee on beneficial land ownership data

Dropping $5.25 search fee should expand access for groups seeking to conduct due diligence and anti-money laundering investigations in the B.C. housing sector, advocates argue.
land-owner-transparency-registry
The Land Owner Transparency Registry sheds light on beneficial owners of B.C. properties.

Anti-money laundering advocates say they’re pleased to see the B.C. government lift fees on its Land Owner Transparency Registry (LOTR) but much more work needs to be done to help shine light on housing market transactions.

On Friday, Minister of Finance Katrine Conroy announced the elimination of a $5.25 search fee for the registry of properties that have a beneficial owner with an indirect interest in land through corporations, trusts and partnerships.

The fee had been imposed despite recommendations from financial transparency advocates such as Sasha Caldera, manager of Publish What You Pay.

“This is going to tremendously help anyone trying to use this registry,” including police, journalists, civil society organizations and those who need to conduct due diligence on transactions such as bankers, real estate agents and lawyers, said Caldera, who recommended no fee be charged when the registry was fully launched in November 2022.

"Through the registry, we're shining a light on hidden property ownership and money laundering in the housing market, and now we're strengthening that work to detect and fight tax evasion, money laundering, and other criminal activity in B.C.,” said Conroy in a statement Friday.

"Making the Land Owner Transparency Registry more accessible supports compliance and enforcement efforts to crack down on hidden ownership in B.C. and ensures B.C.'s real property market is trusted and transparent," said Al-Karim Kara, CEO of the Land Title and Survey Authority (LTSA).

As of Dec. 21, 2023, the ministry said the registry had accepted 553,068 transparency declarations involving 553,234 individual properties, and 137,068 transparency reports involving 261,379 properties.

Caldera acknowledges a lot more work needs to be done in the field.

The registry, for example, does not include properties registered in a name and such searches cost $10.50 via BC Online’s BC Assessment web query. Obtaining mortgage documents require further fees via LTSA.

“The next thing is enforcement,” said Caldera. “Right now, it is unclear whether there will be strong enforcement for the registry itself.

“While searchable, you also need a series of strong penalties for knowingly falsifying information.

“We need a mechanism so when people file they (officials) need to be able to check so you’re not just making up the name of a beneficial owner,” said Caldera, who’s acknowledged some bad actors will attempt to skirt the system.

Established penalties for not filing with LOTR are: $25,000 for an individual or $50,000 for a corporation, or five per cent of the assessed value of the property — whichever is greater.

Caldera said his group along with Transparency International Canada lobbied the federal government to establish a strong penalty and enforcement regime for the incoming federal beneficial ownership registry for corporations.

That registry requires all provinces to join the registry, otherwise Canada could be left with a jurisdictional gap where bad actors flock to, said Caldera.

B.C. is leading the charge, said Caldera, with its own corporate beneficial ownership registry.

The government already requires companies keep transparency registers of beneficial owners under the Business Administration Act. The next step will be to take that information to a public registry.

Caldera said it will be important for names to be searchable. As it stands now, BC Online allows one to search a company and see a director but there’s no means to simply search someone by name to see if they own or direct a company.

These registries were frequently mentioned in recommendations by the (Cullen) Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in British Columbia.

Commissioner Austin Cullen recommend in June 2022 that “within three years of the Land Owner Transparency Registry being populated with historical data, the AML Commissioner report to the Province with any recommendations for improvement to the registry. These recommendations should be informed by the AML Commissioner’s study of the effectiveness of the registry.”

The B.C. government has not created that AML commissioner role, at least to date.

Cullen also recommended all legal owners of mortgage charges (via the Form B) be reported and publicly disclosed through the land titles registry. It's unclear if that change has been made, to date.

Lifting LOTR fee runs counter to B.C. government trend

The lifting of the search fee comes in the wake of the provincial B.C. NDP government imposing $10 search fees on all freedom of information requests and allowing sub-provincial government entities such as municipalities and health authorities to do the same.

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner criticized the fee in a January 2024 report, noting it has stifled access requests while government responses have actually increased since implementation of the fee in fall 2021.

Since implementation “general requests, to which the application fee applied, declined by more than 50 per cent (mostly by political parties, media, and individual applicants). Combined with findings on Government’s timeliness during this period, it is clear the imposition of the application fee has not yielded quicker responses for applicants,” wrote commissioner Michael McEvoy.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca