The new Companies Act 2014 is a significant step for Gibraltar's burgeoning businesses (Shutterstock)
Show Hide image

Landmark new laws for Gibraltar’s businesses, 84 years in the making

Gibraltar’s company laws have been lagging behind 21st century business practices, say Ian Felice and Gemma Vasquez. But times are changing with the brand new Companies Act 2014, introduced this month

What is company law? In short, it’s the area of law concerned with businesses and how they operate. Businesses come in all shapes and sizes, and the laws that govern them cover everything from how they’re formed, to how they draw up accounts or declare insolvency. In short, company law enables businesses to get on with doing their work legally and equitably in the most up-to-date, modern fashion.

Gibraltar has been a member of the EU since 1973, and has seen rapid private sector growth in recent years. The latest budget figures reflect a continued growth in the economy of around 10.3 per cent per annum. Against such a backdrop, you will probably be surprised to learn that Gibraltar has not updated its company law since its last Companies Act of 1930 – more than 80 years ago. By comparison, in that space of time the UK has seen three significant company law reforms: in 1948, 1985 and 2006. To put it bluntly, Gibraltar was missing a beat. The financial services industry has long felt that the law should be updated in line with the requirements of modern practice.

That’s why, in 2010, the exciting task of modernising Gibraltar’s company law began. The project was industry-led; an initiative of The Association of Trust and Company Managers which was drafted by a team at Hassans law firm. Just two years later, the new Act came into force on the first of this month. It is a proof that Gibraltar is a modern jurisdiction that has stepped up to join the rest of the world. The Companies Act 2014 constitutes a major overhaul of the law governing Gibraltar companies, and brings it into line with the Gibraltar’s reputation as a modern, leading finance centre.

So what does it actually look like? The Act comprises a raft of amendments, intended to streamline and improve Gibraltar company law in line with the needs of the industry’s various bodies, including Companies House, the Gibraltar Society of Accountants, the Gibraltar Funds & Investments Association, as well as individual legal practitioners and the financial services industry more broadly. The Companies Act 2014 also incorporates certain provisions equivalent to those in the 2006 Companies Act of England and Wales (the “UK Act”), as well as EU Directives. It also codifies certain procedures which were already occurring as a matter of practice. 

Here are just a few of the most significant and interesting changes:

Execution of documents 

A significant practical change is the manner in which documents and deeds may be executed, which under the Companies Act 2014 is largely the same as the position in the UK and less onerous than previously was the case. The 1930 Companies Act is ambiguous as to whether a deed may be executed by a director in the presence of a witness. It is now specifically provided that a deed, or other document requiring execution by a company, may be executed by a director and a witness or by two authorised signatories (a definition for which is provided in the Companies Act 2014).

Financial assistance

The Companies Act 2014 adopts what were referred to as the “whitewash” provisions in the UK in relation to financial assistance. The new provisions reflect the position under the 1985 Companies Act of England and Wales, with the definition of financial assistance having been tightened. This means that the practice of creating a holding company with which to provide financial assistance to its parent company is no longer possible.

The only manner in which financial assistance is possible under the Companies Act 2014 is through the “whitewash” provisions. A private company can give financial assistance under the Companies Act 2014 if its net assets are not thereby reduced, or, to the extent that they are reduced, if the assistance is provided out of distributable profits.

Unfair prejudice

Under the Companies Act 2014, a member of a company may apply to the court where such member feels that the company’s affairs are being, have been conducted, or are proposed to be conducted in a manner that is unfairly prejudicial to the interests of members. It is important to note that this action is brought on the behalf of the member itself and not on behalf of the company. If the court finds the application to be successful, it can order the company to refrain from doing any act complained of, authorise civil proceedings, or make a compulsory share purchase order

E-filing

Perhaps the most obvious example of the modernisation of the 1930 Companies Act is the inclusion of “e-filing” and the ability for companies to publish certain information on websites. Communications from a company to its shareholders, and vice versa, may also be made electronically, with the intention that all such contact be both quicker and more straightforward. The registrar has the ability to impose requirements as to the form, authentication and manner of delivery of documents to the registrar

The new Companies Act is a significant change, and its effects are already being felt. This is an important step for Gibraltar’s businesses, marking it out as a mature and modern marketplace.

Ian Felice and Gemma Vasquez are partners at Hassans Gibraltar, an international law firm 

http://www.gibraltarlaw.com/ 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Promoted

Gibraltar - impact of Brexit

Last week our editor took a general overview of some of the scenarios for Gibraltar if Britain were to leave the Euro. This week, as the atmosphere in the British Conservative Party becomes ever more toxic, Michael Castiel, partner at Hassans lawyers on the Rock, goes into more detail (this piece written before the Iain Duncan Smith resignation and subsequent arguments happened).

However unlikely it may prove, the prospect of Britain's withdrawal from the EU sends shivers through Gibraltar's financial services, gaming and tourism industries, which are at the core of Gibraltar’s economy. For, if Britain leaves the EU, Gibraltar goes too, and, should Brexit occur, it is Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK that as in the past, largely will shape Gibraltar's future.

Gibraltar joined the European Union in 1973 as part of the UK. While rights to freedom of services across borders of EU member states apply between Gibraltar and the rest of the EU, because Gibraltar is not a separate member state (and is in fact part of the UK Member State) those rights do not apply between Gibraltar and the UK. Instead a bilateral agreement, formalised almost two decades ago, gives Gibraltar's financial service companies the equivalent EU passporting rights into the UK. Accordingly and pursuant to such agreement, where EU rights in banking, insurance and other financial services are concerned, the UK treats Gibraltar as if it is a separate member state.

This reliance on the special relationship with the UK is recognised by both the Government and the Opposition in Gibraltar, and when the territory (which in this instance as part of the UK electorate) goes to the polls on 23 June, the vote to remain in the EU is likely to be overwhelming. This may have symbolic significance but realistically seems unlikely to influence the outcome. In actual terms, although some non-EU jurisdictions use Gibraltar and its EU passporting rights as a stepping stone into Europe, almost 80% of Gibraltar’s business dealings are with the UK.

But whether or not Britain maintains the 'special relationship' with Gibraltar, if Brexit becomes a reality, other factors will come into play, with the ever-present Spanish Government’s historic sovereignty claim over Gibraltar topping the list.

Recently Spain's caretaker Foreign Minister Jose Maria Margallo went on record that if the UK voted to leave the EU he would immediately 'raise with the UK the question of Gibraltar.' If this was to come about it could take one or more of several different forms, ranging from a complete closure of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, demanding that Gibraltar passport-holders obtain costly visas to visit or transit Spain, imposing more stringent border controls, or a frontier toll on motorists driving into or out of Gibraltar. The latter idea was in fact floated by the Spanish Government three years ago, but dropped when the EU Commission indicated that any such toll would contravene EU law.

Here, again, imponderables come into play, for much will depend on which political parties will form the next Spanish government. A Spanish government headed by the right wing PP party is likely to take a less accommodating attitude towards Gibraltar (the Foreign Minister having recently indicated that in case of Brexit the Spanish Government may opportunistically push once again for a joint sovereignty deal with the UK over Gibraltar) whereas a left of centre coalition will likely adopt a more pragmatic and cooperative relationship with Gibraltar in the event of EU exit.

The most significant changes to Gibraltar's post-Brexit operation as an international finance centre are likely to be in the sphere of tax, and while Gibraltar has always met its obligations in relation to the relevant EU rules and Directives, it has also been slightly uncomfortable with aspects of the EU's moves towards harmonisation of corporate taxes across member states.

Although it was formed as a free market alliance, since its inception fiscal matters have been at the root of the EU, but Gibraltar's 'special relationship' with Britain has allowed considerable latitude in relation to what taxes it imposes or those it doesn't. However, as is the case with other member states, Gibraltar has increasingly found in recent years its fiscal sovereignty eroded and its latitude on tax matters severely curtailed.

As in Britain, Gibraltar has benefitted from several EU Directives introduced to harmonise and support the freedom of establishment, particularly the Parent-Subsidiary Directive which prohibits withholding taxes on cross-border intra-group interest dividend and royalty payments made within the EU.

As a stepping stone for foreign direct investment, should Brexit come about EU subsidiaries could no longer rely on these Directives to allow tax-free dividend or interest payments to their holding companies based in Gibraltar. In the case of the UK, bilateral double tax treaties will no doubt mitigate the impact of the non-application of any tax related Directives. Gibraltar, however, is not currently a party to any bilateral double tax treaties. Accordingly, Gibraltar would either have to seek from the UK the extension of all or some of the UK’s bilateral tax treaties to Gibraltar (subject of course to the agreement by the relevant counterparties) or it would need to negotiate its own network of bilateral double tax treaties with a whole series of EU and non EU Member States. To say the least, neither of these options would be straightforward to implement at short notice and would need the wholehearted support of the British Government

Whilst Gibraltar’s economy is likely to be adversely affected should Brexit occur, there may be some potential benefits. An EU exit would result in fewer regulations and possibly may provide Gibraltar with greater exposure to emerging economies.

From a tax perspective, an EU exit would probably enable Gibraltar to introduce tax rules and incentives that are contrary to EU tax laws and would provide the Gibraltar Government more freedom to adopt competitive tax regimes that may be considered contrary to EU state aid rules. How possible or effective any such strategy would be is doubtful given the OECD driven anti-tax avoidance climate affecting all reputable jurisdictions whether within or outside the EU.

In this as well as other possible change much will hinge on any post-Brexit relationship with the UK - an issue which the Gibraltar Government addressed recently in a paper sent to Westminster's Foreign Affairs Committee. It stressed not only that 'EU membership has been an important factor in the development of Gibraltar’s economy' but also the importance of 'clarity as to the rights the British Government will protect and defend for Gibraltar in the context of its own negotiations.' 

0800 7318496