Hurricane Irma’s impact on the British Virgin Islands will be etched on the minds of those who lived through it forever, with the rebuilding of lives, homes and businesses expected to take many months. One heartening aspect of it all however is the impressive way in which the BVI regulatory and business community globally has worked together in the days after Irma passed to keep the BVI financial services industry genuinely open for business. This article looks at how the global BVI community helped provide a safe harbour from the storm for BVI financial services.
Worldwide VIRRGIN access and the key role of the FSC
After an initial couple of days when communications with the BVI were very difficult, and once it became clear quite how severe the hurricane’s impact had been on the ground in the BVI, BVI House Asia and various BVI professional services firms with offices in Hong Kong quickly gathered to discuss how to keep key BVI corporate services up and running from outside the jurisdiction. Essential to this was the ability to access the Financial Services Commission’s (FSC) VIRRGIN online corporate registry. Access to VIRRGIN was swiftly opened up to users worldwide for the first time, having previously been limited to users in the BVI, to allow professionals working with BVI companies from outside the BVI to continue to access information and make filings for BVI companies on VIRRGIN.
The FSC’s quick and efficient handling of numerous requests for new users, emergency passwords and extended access rights for existing users on VIRRGIN, combined with BVI House Asia arranging services usually provided from the BVI, meant that within days of Irma passing full VIRRGIN access was available. Clients could incorporate companies and obtain certificates, practitioners were able to make deposits on accounts, make full BVI Business Companies Act filings including security filings, and complete company searches. In turn, this meant that corporate and finance deals involving BVI companies could keep moving, investment funds could be established and businesses keep operating. BVI’s on-going compliance with international reporting standards via the BVI’s beneficial ownership information portal was also unaffected by the hurricane and remained operational. BVI financial services really were still open for business in a way that exceeded both hopes and expectations following a hit from a category 5 hurricane.
The FSC’s daily update bulletins also kept BVI professionals promptly updated on progress, so that they in turn could keep clients informed. Individuals at the FSC in Hong Kong, and in the BVI when they re-opened, were unfailingly helpful and available throughout, even when during initial days they too were waiting for news that family and friends were safe.
Similarly professional services firms, including law firms, accountants and corporate services providers, worked hard together to find industry-wide solutions for issues which worked for everyone, while maintaining their clients’ best interests. The fact that many professional services firms providing BVI services have offices around the world meant that colleagues could pick up BVI based client matters and cover them while their BVI colleagues moved to safety. Collaboration between the FSC and professional services firms also meant that everyone was able to provide the best service possible to
their clients in extreme circumstances. At Harneys we continue to work closely with BVI Finance and the BVI Government, advising them on the most pressing business needs following Irma and to help road map the future for BVI’s financial services sector.
Court move to St Lucia
Following Irma, the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court has temporarily moved the Commercial Division of the High Court to Saint Lucia, and the Judges of the Commercial Division began hearing matters there on 25 September. Urgent matters were dealt with even before that date, ensuring that commercial litigation involving BVI entities could continue despite the physical damage in the BVI. Our Tortola offices remained operational and open after Irma, with key lawyers staying on island and helping with the court’s temporary move to St Lucia. Although we are expecting the court to return to the BVI in the short term, this temporary move is working well, with documents being able to be filed electronically, telephone hearings now taking place from London, Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world and comprehensive guidelines for practitioners having been put in place to ensure the efficient and effective operation of the Court. We also now have a temporary “pop-up office” on the ground on St Lucia with two BVI qualified advocates, Stuart Cullen and Christopher Pease based there and other lawyers able to fly in when needed.
Looking to the future
We are confident that the BVI as a key offshore financial services centre will rebound and continue to be an exciting, innovative and solutions orientated jurisdiction. The resilience and collaboration shown between the FSC and BVI professional services firms and individuals worldwide in keeping BVI financial services open for business in the aftermath of Irma underlines the determination of everyone involved to make sure that the BVI will continue to flourish. Harneys fully intends to be at the forefront of these developments.