BVI: Economic Substance Legislation

Fanny Evans, associate at Morgan & Morgan

The British Virgin Islands (BVI) has passed legislation requiring certain legal entities carrying on relevant activities to demonstrate adequate economic substance in the BVI. The owners of any company or limited partnership registered or incorporated in the BVI should be aware of this legislation and consider how they may be affected.

The Economic Substance (Companies and Limited Partnerships) Act, 2018 (the Act) came into force on January 1st, 2019. It addresses the concerns of the European Union (“EU”) Code of Conduct Group for Business Taxation and recent OECD guidance around the economic substance of entities in jurisdictions with low or zero corporation tax. The Act demonstrates the BVI’s continued commitment to international best practice including the BVI’s implementation of the OECD’s Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) framework and related EU initiatives.

The Act follows closely the approach taken to address the same issue by the Crown Dependencies of the UK (Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man) and the other UK Overseas Territories including the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.

What is the effect?

The Act imposes economic substance requirements on all legal entities carrying on “relevant activities” unless they can evidence that they are tax-resident elsewhere. Entities which do not carry on a relevant activity are not subject to the economic substance requirements but may be subject to certain reporting obligations.

The relevant activities are:

1)     banking business
2)     insurance business
3)     fund management business
4)     finance and leasing business
5)     headquarters business
6)     shipping business
7)     holding business
8)     intellectual property business
9)     distribution and service centre business

We look forward to further guidance by the government to assist in determining if a particular entity is carrying on a relevant activity or if exemptions may apply. 

What are the reporting obligations and who will have access to information?

The information will be provided to the BVI International Tax Authority (ITA) via the BOSS system. BVI and foreign registered companies and limited partnerships will be required to report certain information to their BVI registered agent for this information to be uploaded onto the Beneficial Ownership Secure Search System regime (BOSS) so that the BVI International Tax Authority (ITA) can have access to it.

The ITA may use the information to discharge its duty to supervise and enforce the economic substance requirements. Information may be disclosed by the ITA to relevant overseas authorities in certain cases, including where there is breach of the economic substance requirements or where the entity claims to be tax resident in an EU member state.

What are the penalties?

Penalties are imposed for failure to provide required information or providing false or misleading information and for operating a legal entity in breach of the economic substance requirements + which may include fines, imprisonment and/or strike-off. 

What is next?

The Regulations, Rules and formal Guidance Notes, will be issued within the following weeks. They will certainly provide further detail and a clearer picture so that all relevant entities will be able to undertake an internal review to determine what measures, if any, they should take in order to achieve compliance. We believe that, for many entities, the impact will be minimal and compliance will be straightforward.

We will leave, in our opinion, the best news for the end because we assume that after having read the above, the most important question to answer is: 

Are these efforts being welcomed by the EU?

The EU has confirmed that the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands have not been included on the EU’s updated list of non-cooperative jurisdictions for tax purposes (known as the EU blacklist), which was published on March 12th, 2019. The EU’s decision confirms that both jurisdictions have implemented good tax governance principles which address the EU’s earlier concerns on the economic substance of certain entities in low or no tax jurisdictions.

BVI has overcome many pressures from various international organizations. This ability to respond demonstrates that is a highly regulated and stable jurisdiction willing to protect the wide array of services it offers. With the Economic Substance legislation BVI remarks its commitment to continue being the leading financial center.