In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, many registered firms are implementing their business continuity plans (BCPs) and having their employees work from home, except where certain individuals need to access office facilities to ensure continued service to clients. In this article, we’ll address some issues for registered firms to consider in the short and medium term while operating in such conditions. We emphasize that firms and regulators are facing an unprecedented and constantly changing situation, and so our initial views on the issues below may change as circumstances evolve and regulators issue new or updated guidance or rules.
If my firm is covered by an “essential service” exemption from a government order to close businesses, why not carry on as usual from our office? Workplaces can contribute to the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, and so a firm needs to evaluate the occupational health and safety, public health and litigation risks of having employees work from its offices or meet physically with clients, etc. The Government of Canada has published Risk-Informed Decision-Making Guidelines for workplaces and businesses during the pandemic. If you need legal advice on employment or occupational health and safety matters, AUM Law can source, evaluate and help you retain appropriate counsel and then manage the provision of that advice so that you can focus on running your business. From a securities regulatory compliance perspective, we think that a registered firm that requires all or most of its employees to work onsite instead of working from home could attract scrutiny from securities regulators due to concerns that the firm’s BCP is not functioning effectively.
Should my firm contact the securities regulator because we have activated our BCP? Activating your BCP does not, in itself, trigger an obligation to notify the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC). If, however, your firm finds that it might not be able to meet one or more of its regulatory obligations on a timely basis because of the pandemic, then that might trigger a filing obligation and we encourage you to speak to your usual lawyer at AUM Law as soon as possible. (See also our article in this bulletin on the blanket orders issued by members of the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) extending certain filing deadlines for registrants, investment funds and others.) We can advise you on your options and liaise with regulators on your behalf.
Do the home offices of registered individuals need to be approved as branch offices? Technically, having registered employees work from a location other than the address indicated on their Form 33-109F4 (Form F4), could be viewed as requiring an updated filing and/or approval of new “branch offices”. However, in light of the recent government orders and recommendations requiring or asking people to stay at home as much as practicable, we believe that at least in the short term, it is unlikely that OSC staff will expect registered firms to update Form F4s or seek approval for branch offices, provided that registered individuals are not meeting with clients in their homes or bringing home physical files that contain sensitive client information.
Cross-training: Are there functions at your firm that only one or two employees know how to perform? If you haven’t done so lately, we encourage you to review and update your list of key tasks and deadlines and the individuals responsible for performing those tasks. Identify a back-up person for each task and deadline (or group of related tasks and deadlines) and, if necessary, train that back-up person.
BCP considerations for “one-registrant” firms: If a registered firm has only one registered individual (One-Registrant Firm) to serve clients, we encourage the firm to have a plan to address a scenario where that individual is absent or incapacitated for weeks or months. We recommend that One-Registrant Firms, at a minimum, prepare standing instructions for the firm’s administrative staff and legal representatives to follow if the registered individual is absent or incapacitated for more than a brief period. Such firms also might wish to explore the feasibility of negotiating, in advance, a formal agreement with another registered firm (Temporary Successor). Such an arrangement could be a reciprocal one between two One-Registrant Firms seeking to address the same business continuity issue. Under such an agreement, the Temporary Successor would step into the shoes of the registered individual, for certain purposes, if that individual was unable to perform their duties for more than a brief period. The purpose of the agreement would only be to communicate with service providers and clients as the clients decide how best to address their account assets.
Technology risks including cyber-security and privacy risks: The rapid shift to remote work arrangements has resulted in some issues arising with respect to technology slowdowns, disruptions and hacking. Some firms are deploying new software or devices (including virtual meeting systems) that employees are having to become familiar with quickly, and many employees are dealing with the challenge of handling matters discreetly with family members or roommates present. There also are reports of some public, virtual meetings and conferences conducted over Zoom and similar systems being hacked. Finally, some employees are experiencing anxiety and confusion because of the pandemic. All these circumstances increase the risks of inadvertent cyber-security failures and opportunities for hacking. Maintaining robust cyber-security policies and procedures, adapting them as needed to address emerging or changing risks, reminding employees of the need to take precautions, and monitoring employees’ compliance with such policies and procedures are essential actions at this time both from a regulatory compliance and litigation risk perspective.
Communications with clients: Pandemic conditions and their knock-on effects in financial markets may result in a significant increase in customer call volumes or online account usage. Registered firms should review their BCPs and assess the effectiveness of their systems and processes to handle this level of increased activity. If your firm is experiencing difficulty serving customers in a timely way, please contact us to discuss measures you should undertake (including communication strategies) to address the situation. (On a related subject, please see our FAQ in this bulletin focused on ensuring that you’ve got current know-your-client (KYC) information for clients whose life situations may be changing dramatically.)
Supervision, compliance and internal controls during the new “work from home” normal: As we all adjust over the next month or so to the “new normal” of working remotely as much as practicable for an unknown period of time, we think that regulators will begin expecting to see registered firms consider whether they need to adapt their policies, procedures and controls to address any new or magnified regulatory compliance risks. AUM Law can help you assess whether your existing supervisory system, compliance manual, procedures and internal controls should be revised to ensure compliance while many employees are operating from remote locations.
We can help: At AUM Law, we are experienced in reviewing BCPs from a regulatory compliance perspective. We can draft or update your BCP to ensure that it addresses a scenario like this one. Please don’t hesitate to contact us.
March 31, 2020
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA), including the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC), have been providing blanket exemptive relief and taking other steps to relieve burdens for market participants. The situation is fluid and additional actions are being taken as new challenges arise, so the summary below can only be a snapshot as of the publication date of this bulletin.
Compliance Reviews: In its March 16 news release, the OSC stated that its on-site compliance reviews have been postponed until further notice. Its normal course compliance activities are continuing as planned but the OSC has signalled its willingness to be flexible on deadlines for information.
CSA Extends Certain Filing Deadlines: On March 23, the OSC and other CSA members published blanket orders providing temporary relief from certain filing requirements. We have summarized below key provisions in the OSC blanket orders concerning registered firms and investment funds.
Fee Filings and Payments
- Who: Registered firms and unregistered capital markets participants that are required to pay capital markets participation fees to the OSC.
- What: If the firm paid its 2019 capital markets participation fee based on an estimate of its 2019 specified Ontario revenues, it ordinarily would have to re-calculate those revenues and the relevant participation fee based on its final 2019 financial information. If the recalculated fee exceeded the estimated fee paid at the end of 2019, the firm ordinarily would have to pay the balance owing and file an updated Form 13-502F4 Capital Markets Participation Fee Calculation or Form 13-503F1 (Commodity Futures Act) Participation Fee Calculation by March 30, 2020.
- Extension: The deadline has been extended for 45 days from the original deadline.
Financial Statements / Calculations of Excess Working Capital
- CSA members have issued substantially harmonized blanket orders providing registered dealers, advisers and investment fund managers (IFMs) with a 45-day extension from the original deadline for certain financial statements if the deadline originally fell between March 23 and June 1. The extension applies automatically, without any terms and conditions.
- Dealers: annual financial statements, completed Form 31-103F1 Calculation of Excess Working Capital (Form 31-103F1), and interim financial information;
- Advisers: annual financial statements and completed Form 31-103F1; and
- IFMs: annual financial statements, completed Form 31-103F1, completed Form 31-103F4 Net Asset Value Adjustments (Form 31-103F4), and interim financial information.
- IIROC and MFDA Firms: Firms that are members of the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (IIROC) or the Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada (MFDA) have been granted similar relief in respect of the regulatory financial questionnaires coming due.
Investment Fund Filing, Delivery and Prospectus Renewal Requirements (Funds Blanket Order)
- Filing and Delivery Deadlines Extended 45 days: CSA members have issued substantially harmonized blanket orders providing investment funds with a 45-day extension on various filing and delivery deadlines for materials such as annual financial statements and auditor reports, interim financial statements, annual custodian compliance reports, annual mutual fund compliance reports, annual information forms, independent review committee (IRC) reports to securityholders, and annual and interim management reports of fund performance.
- Prospectus Renewals: An investment fund distributing securities under a prospectus with a lapse date that occurs between March 23 and June 1, 2020 may add 45 days to that lapse date.
- Fund Must Notify Regulator and Public: If an investment fund wishes to rely upon the Funds Blanket Order, it must, as soon as reasonably practicable and in advance the relevant delivery, filing or renewal deadline:
- Notify its regulator by email that it is relying upon the Funds Blanket Order and each requirement for which it is relying upon that order; and
- Post a statement on its public website or public website of its investment fund manager that it is relying upon the Funds Blanket Order and each requirement for which it is relying on upon that order.
Requests for Comment: The CSA indicated in their March 18 news release that all CSA proposals currently out for comment will have their comment periods extended by 45 days.
Risk Assessment Questionnaire (RAQ): In its March 16 news release, the OSC indicated that the RAQ is postponed until further notice.
Other Exemptive Relief: CSA members have also granted temporary relief to other categories of market participants (e.g. such as reporting issuers) and signalled regulatory flexibility regarding certain other requirements (such as the operation of annual general meetings).
Please contact us if you have any questions about the blanket orders described above, other requirements and temporary exemptions, and/or other operational changes adopted by CSA members that may affect your business. We can help you assess your options and, if necessary, engage with regulators on your behalf.
March 31, 2020
On March 25, FINTRAC issued a notice (Notice) indicating that it is committed to working constructively with businesses (Reporting Entities) subject to the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act (PCMLTFA) to minimize the impact of ongoing anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing (AMLTF) requirements while Reporting Entities are experiencing challenges due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19. FINTRAC had four main messages:
- Reporting: Reporting Entities should give priority to submitting suspicious transaction reports (STRs), as required.
- Verification of Identity: Some provincial governments are extending the validity of various identification documents to avoid in-personal renewal visits. If a person presents a document or information affected by such a decision, the Reporting Entity must still determine the authenticity of that document or information but can, until further notice, consider the document or information valid and current.
- Compliance Assessment and Enforcement: For now, FINTRAC does not plan to initiate any new examinations and plans to limit its other interactions with Reporting Entities to: (1) completion of existing examinations situations relating to reporting issues; and (2) requests for guidance.
- If Non-Compliance Is Unavoidable: In the Notice, FINTRAC stressed the importance for Reporting Entities of documenting the reasons for any situation where the Reporting Entity cannot meet a reporting or other regulatory obligation for reasons beyond its control. The Reporting Entity should document the reason for not meeting the obligation (g. employee responsible for fulfilling an obligation affected by COVID-19) and, where possible, any measures taken to mitigate the non-compliance. Firms are also encouraged to submit a voluntary self-declaration of non-compliance via email, when they can, and such a notification will be taken into account in future compliance activities.
If your firm is experiencing challenges complying with your obligations under the PCMLTFA or your monthly AMLTF reporting obligations to securities regulators, AUM Law can help. For example, we can prepare and file on your behalf your monthly AMLTF reports with securities regulators. And if you are facing an instance of potential or actual non-compliance with your obligations, we can advise you on how to document the issues, develop mitigation strategies and liaise with regulators on your behalf as needed.
March 31, 2020
Answer: The pandemic is likely to be a life event for many individual clients, who might experience, among other things, a loss or significant decrease in employment or business income, a significant decrease in the value of their investments, and/or become seriously ill. This means that such clients’ know-your-client (KYC) information could need updating and that transactions, holdings and/or accounts might no longer be suitable for them.
Remember that, for accounts subject to the suitability determination requirements in National Instrument 31-103 Registration Requirements, Exemptions and Ongoing Registrant Obligations (NI 31-103), registrants must take reasonable steps to keep current the client’s KYC information. In addition, before making a recommendation, accepting a client’s instruction to buy or sell a security, or making a purchase or sale of a security for a managed account, the registrant must take reasonable steps to ensure that the purchase or sale of the security is suitable for the client.
The challenge, of course, is that a registrant may have hundreds or thousands of clients whose circumstances have changed, or are about to change, as the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve. And the potential need to update KYC information is occurring while individual clients and registrants are coping with the dislocations caused by quarantine measures and the shift to work-from-home arrangements.
Given, however, the fundamental importance of the KYC and suitability requirements as investor protection mechanisms, we don’t expect securities regulators to take a lax approach to compliance in this area. Pandemic or not, registered firms should have policies and procedures for updating KYC information, including in situations like these where registrants might have reason to believe that clients’ circumstances have changed, or are about to change, significantly. We expect that in a compliance review or other inquiry, regulators will want to documentation showing that a registered firm has:
- Effective policies and procedures for updating KYC;
- If necessary to accommodate the need to update KYC information on a wide scale and rapid basis, the firm has revised its procedures;
- Pursuant to those policies and procedures, reached a well-reasoned decision on how to communicate with clients whose KYC information might need updating now;
- Executed on the firm’s plan to update KYC as needed; and
- Revised the plan, if necessary, and executed the revised plan if the changing circumstances warrant it.
AUM Law can help you develop a plan for updating clients’ KYC information in light of COVID-19. Please do not hesitate to contact us.
March 26, 2020