A spotlight on beneficial ownership

Mar 26, 2021
Dee Moran and Lilian Halpin explain entities’ existing obligations regarding beneficial ownership and look ahead to future developments, focusing on trusts in particular.

Most entities have a legitimate role to play in the global economy, but they also have the potential for criminals to use the structure for money laundering, terrorist financing and other financial misconduct. To identify and increase the transparency of those that seek to hide their ownership and control of these entities, many countries have introduced a register of beneficial ownership. Having a register ensures that the ultimate owners/controllers are identified, and that accurate and up-to-date information on a beneficial owner is readily accessible to authorised officers and other competent authorities that are entitled to the information under money laundering legislation.
In Ireland, entities must maintain a register to comply with obligations under the 4th EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive (4AMLD), which was passed in May 2015 and subsequently amended by the 5th EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive (5AMLD), which was passed in May 2018.

Who is a beneficial owner?

A beneficial owner is defined in the directives and Irish legislation by reference to the entity type (e.g. trust, corporate entity, investment limited partnership). The different pieces of legislation should be consulted depending on the entity. Common threads in the definitions are ownership and control, whether direct or indirect, and a holding of more than 25% of the entity.

Are there two registers?

There are two separate registers in Ireland. While companies were required since 2016 to gather information and maintain an internal register of beneficial ownership, the 2019 beneficial ownership of corporate entities regulations (one of two sets of regulations passed in 2019 relevant to beneficial ownership) required relevant entities to file information in a central register. The Central Register of Beneficial Ownership of Companies and Industrial and Provident Societies, which falls under the remit of the registrar of the Companies Registration Office, was opened for filings in July 2019. Any companies/societies in existence on 22 June 2019 had until 22 November 2019 to file their beneficial ownership details, and the five-month timeline to register relevant entities remains.

Similarly, certain other financial vehicles described below must maintain an internal beneficial ownership register. There are also legislative requirements to file information on the central register, the Beneficial Ownership Register for Certain Financial Vehicles. Under specific legislation, the Central Bank of Ireland is designated as the registrar responsible for maintaining this central register.

Under EU anti-money laundering (AML) regulations that came into effect in 2020, Irish Collective Asset Management Vehicles (ICAVs), unit trusts and credit unions that were in existence when the AML regulations came into force were required to register by 25 December 2020. Under the Investment Limited Partnerships (Amendment) Act 2020, which was commenced recently, existing investment limited partnerships (ILPs) and common contractual funds (CCFs) have until 1 September 2021 to register. Under both pieces of legislation, new financial vehicles that come into existence following the legislation’s implementation have six months from the date of coming into existence to register.

What details must be registered?

The information that must be delivered to each registrar concerning each beneficial owner includes name, date of birth, nationality, residential address, and a statement of the nature and extent of the interest held or control exercised by each beneficial owner. For Central Bank registration, it must be stated if the person is currently a pre-approval controlled function (PCF) holder in the entity or at any other regulated financial services provider. For companies and industrial and provident societies, the 2019 regulations require a PPS number to be furnished for verification purposes. The 2020 Act also requires PPS numbers to verify the information delivered in the case of ILPs and CCFs. In the case of both registers, the registrar is not permitted to disclose PPS numbers and must store them securely.

Relevant entities must keep the beneficial ownership register up-to-date, and this information must align with the information filed on the Central Register. Where change(s) occur, the entity has 14 days to deliver the information so that the relevant amendments are made to the Central Register.

Who is entitled to access the information in the Central Register?

There are two tiers of access to data in the Central Register:
  1. Unrestricted access to the information in the Central Register will be afforded to authorised officers within specific organisations (i.e. An Garda Síochána, the Financial Intelligence Unit of An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners, the Criminal Assets Bureau, the Central Bank of Ireland, and other Irish competent authorities engaged in the prevention, detection, or investigation of possible money laundering or terrorist financing.
  2. Restricted access to information in the Central Register will be made available to the general public and designated persons (e.g. a bank carrying out customer due diligence, save where the beneficial owner is a minor). Those with restricted access will be able to access the name, month and year of birth, nationality, country of residence, and the statement about the nature and extent of the beneficial interest held. The beneficial owner’s date of birth and address will not be available to those with restricted access.

Data protection law

Any information exchange and sharing mandated by the legislation must comply with data protection law. Personal data is defined in Section 69 of the Data Protection Act 2018, and information to be collected and held on the central registers can include personal data. The data protection obligations are expressly recognised in the 2019 Regulations and 2020 Act, both of which provide that the Data Protection Act 2018 shall apply to the access the registrar affords to a designated person and any member of the public in respect of the information in the central register.

Sanctions

Sanctions include a fine of up to €5,000 for a trustee and a fine not exceeding €500,000 or up to 12 months imprisonment in respect of corporate entities.

Future developments

It is expected that a separate central register in respect of the beneficial ownership of trusts will be implemented in due course, as required under the Directives. This is expected to materialise sooner rather than later – trust regulations published in 2019 already impose obligations on trustees to seek and obtain information from beneficial owners of trusts and establish internal registers of beneficial ownership.

The Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) (Amendment) Act 2020 was signed into Irish law recently, and contains provisions in relation to trusts. It defines a “beneficial owner” and lists certain trusts that would be excluded from a future requirement to register. These provisions are being introduced in anticipation of the Minister for Finance introducing further regulation in the area and to address part of the overall transposition of 5AMLD into Irish law. In Dáil discussions on the provisions, the Minister made specific reference to the requirements in 5AMLD that all member states establish a central register of beneficial ownership of express trusts.

On the international front, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organisation that promotes policies to combat money laundering and terrorist financing and of which Ireland is a member, announced in February that it would review the global rules around beneficial ownership.

The European Commission recently stated that it would closely monitor the setting up of the central bank account mechanisms and the beneficial ownership registers by member states to ensure that they are populated with high-quality data. The Directives require interconnection of member state registers, and work to interconnect the beneficial ownership registers has already started. The interconnection will be operational in 2021. Meanwhile, related EU regulation dealing with the EU Central Register’s technical specifications is expected to come into force soon.

The requirement to keep and maintain a register for beneficial ownership is here to stay, and a central register for trusts will soon be a legal requirement. An understanding of the requirements is important if sanctions are to be avoided. An EU central register is imminent. This will put further pressure on individual countries to maintain registers with high-quality information, so expect the spotlight to continue to shine brightly when this comes into existence.
Dee Moran is Professional Accountancy Leader at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Lilian Halpin is a Consultant at Chartered Accountants Ireland.