The hearing at the court of appeal in The Hague in the proceedings of Privacy First against the register for Ultimate Beneficial Owners (UBO) is scheduled for Monday, 27 September 2021.
Following the very critical advice of the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), the district court of The Hague confirmed on 18 March 2021 that there is every reason to doubt the validity of the European money laundering directives that form the basis for the UBO register. The judge ruled that it cannot be excluded that the highest European court, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), will conclude that the public nature of the UBO register is not in line with the principle of proportionality. Since a Luxembourg local court has already refered questions about this to the CJEU, the Dutch court in summary proceedings did not find it necessary to ask questions about it as well. Privacy First has appealed the judgment in these summary proceedings, taking the case to the court of appeal of The Hague. Our appeal summons can be found here (pdf in Dutch).
Privacy First requests the court of appeal to ask preliminary questions on the UBO register to the European Court of Justice and calls for the suspension of the operation of the UBO register until these questions have been answered. Privacy First also asks the court to temporarily suspend the public accessibility of the UBO register, at least until the CJEU has ruled on this matter. The court of appeal's ruling is expected a few weeks after the hearing on 27 September 2021.
‘‘The UBO register will put privacy-sensitive data of millions of people up for grabs’’, Privacy First’s attorney Otto Volgenant of Boekx Attorneys comments. ‘‘There are doubts from all sides whether this is an effective tool in the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Court of Justice of the EU will ultimately rule on this. I expect that it will annul the UBO register – at least its public accessibility. Until then, I advise UBOs not to submit any data to the UBO register. Once data have been made public, they cannot be retrieved.’’
Background of the lawsuit against the UBO register
Privacy First is bringing a lawsuit against the Dutch government regarding the UBO Register which was introduced in 2020. In summary proceedings, the invalidity of the EU regulations on which the UBO register is based are being invoked. The consequences of this new legislation are far-reaching. After all, it concerns very privacy-sensitive information. Data about the financial situation of natural persons will be out in the open. More than 1.5 million legal entities in the Netherlands that are listed in the Dutch Trade Register will have to disclose information about their ultimate beneficial owners. The UBO register is accessible to everyone, for €2.50 per retrieval. This level of public accessibility is not proportionate.
On 24 June 2020, the Dutch ‘Implementation Act on Registration of Ultimate Beneficial Owners of Companies and Other Legal Entities’ entered into force. Based on this new Act, a new UBO register linked to the Trade Register of the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce will contain information on all ultimate beneficial owners of companies and other legal entities incorporated in the Netherlands. This information must indicate the interest of the UBO, i.e. 25-50%, 50-75% or more than 75%. In any case, the UBO’s name, month and year of birth as well as nationality will be publicly available for everyone to consult, with all the privacy risks this entails.
Since 27 September 2020, newly established entities must register their UBO in the UBO Register. Existing legal entities have until March 27 2022 to register their UBOs. The law gives only very limited options for shielding information. This is only possible for persons secured by the police, for minors and for those under guardianship. The result will be that the interests of almost all UBOs will become public knowledge.
European Anti-Money Laundering Directive
This new law stems from the Fifth European Anti-Money Laundering Directive, which requires EU Member States to register and disclose to the public the personal data of UBOs. The aim of this is to combat money laundering and terrorist financing. According to the European legislator, the registration and subsequent disclosure of personal data of UBOs, including the interest that the UBO has in a company, contributes to that objective. The public nature of the register would have a deterrent effect on persons wishing to launder money or finance terrorism. But the effectiveness of a UBO register in the fight against money laundering and terrorism has never been substantiated.
Massive privacy violation and fundamental criticism
The question is whether the means does not defeat the purpose. Registering the personal data of all UBOs and making it accessible to everyone is a blanket measure of a preventive nature. 99.99% of all UBOs have nothing to do with money laundering or terrorist financing. If it was in fact proportionate to collect information on UBOs, it should be sufficient if that information is available to those government agencies involved in combating money laundering and terrorism. Making the information completely public is going too far. The European Data Protection Supervisor already ruled that this privacy violation is not proportionate. But this opinion has not led to an amendment of the European directive.
Leading up to the the debate on this law in the Dutch House of Representatives, fundamental criticism came from various quarters. The business community agitated because it feared – and now experiences – an increase in burdens and perceives privacy risks. UBOs of family-owned companies that have remained out of the public eye up until now are running major privacy and security risks. There was also a great deal of attention for the position of parties that attach great importance to the protection of data subjects, such as church communities and social organizations. As for associations and foundations that do not have owners, things are cumbersome: they have to put the data that is already in the Trade Register in another register. Unfortunately, this has not led to any changes in the regulations.
Dutch investigative journalism platform Follow the Money looked into the social costs of the Dutch UBO register. Follow the Money writes: ‘‘The UBO register entails costs, hassle and sometimes slightly absurd bureaucracy for millions of entrepreneurs and directors. The Ministry of Finance reckons the total costs of the register for the business community is 99 million Euros. Another 9 million Euros must be added for one-time implementation costs. When lawyer Volgenant hears about this amount, he reacts with dismay: 'The total costs are much higher than I thought! If you extrapolate that to the whole EU, the costs are astronomical.’’’
Favourable outcome of lawsuit is likely
Privacy First has initiated a lawsuit against the UBO register for violation of the fundamental right to privacy and the protection of personal data. Privacy First requests the Dutch judiciary to render the UBO register inoperative in the short term and to submit preliminary questions on this subject to the Court of Justice of the European Union. It would not be the first time privacy-violating regulations are repealed by the courts, something that previous Privacy First lawsuits attest to.
The Dutch law and also the underlying European directive are in conflict with the European Charter of Fundamental Rights as well as the General Data Protection Regulation. The legislator has created these regulations, but it is up to the courts to conduct a thorough review of them. Ultimately the judge will have the final say. If the (European) legislator does not pay enough attention to the protection of fundamental rights, then the (European) judge can cast the regulations aside. The Court of Justice of the European Union has previously declared regulations invalid due to privacy violations, for example the Telecom Data Protection Directive and the Privacy Shield. The Dutch courts also regularly invalidate privacy-invading regulations. Privacy First has previously successfully challenged the validity of legislation, for example in the proceedings about the Telecommunications Data Retention Act and in the proceedings against SyRI. Viewed against this background, the lawsuit against the UBO register is considered very promising.
Update 27 September 2021: this afternoon the court session took place in The Hague; click HERE for the pleading of our lawyer (pdf in Dutch). The judgment of the court of appeal is scheduled for 16 November 2021.
A Dutch court has today handed down a judgment in preliminary injunction proceedings brought by Privacy First concerning the UBO register. The district court of The Hague confirmed that there is every reason to doubt the legality of the European money laundering directives which are the foundation of the UBO register. On this point the judge follows the very critical opinion of the European Data Protection Supervisor. The interim proceedings court rules that it cannot be excluded that the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will come to the conclusion that the public character of the UBO register is at odds with the proportionality principle. Questions over its legality were recently referred to the CJEU by a Luxembourg national court. As such, the Dutch court felt there is no need to do the same.
Privacy First had also requested a temporary deactivation of the UBO register. This, however, is a step too far for the court, which states that deactivating the register is not possible as long as the underlying EU guideline is still in force. It would put the Netherlands in a position in which it operates in violation of the European guideline. With this claim, the judge says, Privacy First is getting ahead of itself. Privacy First will examine the ruling on this point, also in view of possibly going into appeal.
‘The introduction of the UBO register would mean that privacy-sensitive data of millions of people will be up for grabs’, comments Privacy First’s attorney Otto Volgenant of Boekx Attorneys.’On all sides there are strong doubts whether this is actually an effective means in the fight against money laundering and terrorism. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The Court of Justice of the European Union will eventually adjudicate the case, and I expect it will annul the UBO register.’
At the start of this year, the Privacy First Foundation initiated fundamental legal action against the Dutch government on account of the new UBO register, which is linked to the Trade Register of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce. Under the law the UBO register is based on, all 1.5 million Dutch legal entities that are included in the Trade Register will have to make public all sorts of privacy-sensitive data about their Ultimate Beneficial Owners. This concerns personal data of millions of directors, shareholders and high executives of companies (including family businesses), foundations, associations, churches, social organizations, charities, etc. Privacy First deems that this is a massive privacy violation, one which also creates personal safety risks. That is why Privacy First has asked the court to immediately declare the UBO register unlawful. A lot of information in the register will be publicly available and can be requested by anyone. In Privacy First’s opinion this is completely disproportionate and an infringement of European privacy law. The CJEU will examine whether the European legislation on which the UBO register is based violates the fundamental right to privacy.
The ruling (in Dutch) by the interim proceedings court can be found here: http://deeplink.rechtspraak.nl/uitspraak?id=ECLI:NL:RBDHA:2021:2457.
Update 15 April 2021: yesterday Privacy First filed an urgent appeal against the entire judgment with the Court of Appeal of The Hague. The appeal subpoena can be found HERE (pdf in Dutch). Privacy First requests the Court, inter alia, to ask preliminary questions about the UBO register to the European Court of Justice and to suspend the UBO register until these questions are answered. In view of the major interests at stake, Privacy First hopes that the Court of Appeal of The Hague will hear this case as soon as possible.
Update 17 August 2021: the court hearing in the urgent appeal of Privacy First against the judgment will take place on Monday 27 September at the Court of Appeal in The Hague.
Privacy First initiates legal action against the Dutch government on account of the recently-introduced UBO register. The preliminary injunction proceedings point at the invalidity of the legislation on which this register is based. The consequences of this new piece of legislation are far-reaching as the register contains very privacy-sensitive information. Data relating to the financial situation of natural persons will be up for grabs. More than 1.5 million legal entities that are registered in the Dutch Trade Register will have to make public details about their Ultimate Beneficial Owners (UBOs). The UBO register is publicly accessible: a request for information costs €2.50.
The UBO register aims to prevent money laundering but will lead to defamation.
The privacy breach that is the result of the UBO register and the public accessibility of sensitive data are disproportionate. The goal of the register is to thwart money laundering and terrorist financing. In order to achieve this goal there is no need for a UBO register, at least not one that is publicly accessible.
That is why Privacy First wants the UBO register to be rendered inoperative by a court, which, in case necessary, should submit questions of interpretation to the highest court in Europe: the European Court of Justice. In cases like these, the judiciary will have the final say. It is not uncommon for a court to overrule privacy-violating legislation and in this respect, Privacy First’s litigation has been successful in the past.
The proceedings will take place before The Hague District Court on 25 February 2021 at 12pm. The entire summons can be found HERE (pdf in Dutch). The ruling will follow two or three weeks after the hearing.
Background of the UBO register case
On 24 June 2020, the Dutch ‘Implementation Act for the Registration of Ultimate Beneficial Owners of Companies and Other Legal Entities’ came into effect in the Netherlands. On the basis of this new Act, a new UBO register which is linked to the Commercial Register of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce will contain information about all ultimate beneficial owners of companies and other legal entities founded in the Netherlands. The register should indicate how many shares are owned by the UBO: 25-50%, 50-75% or more than 75%. Furthermore, the name, month and year of birth as well as the nationality of the UBO will be made public, with all the privacy risks this entails.
Since 27 September 2020, newly founded entities have to register the ultimate beneficial owners in the UBO register. Existing legal entities will have to do so before 27 March 2022.
The Act provides very few possibilities to safeguard information. This is possible only for persons that are protected by the police, minors and those placed under guardianship. This means that the shares of practically every UBO will become a matter of public record. Anyone has access to the UBO register, with extracts coming at a price of €2.50.
European money laundering directive
The new Act stems from the fifth European money laundering directive, which obliges EU Member States to register UBOs and disclose their details to the public. According to the European legislator, this contributes to the proclaimed objective of countering money laundering and terrorist financing. The transparency is supposed to be a deterrent for persons who set out to launder money or finance terrorism.
Massive privacy violation and fundamental criticism
The question is whether this produces a windfall effect. Registering the personal data of all UBOs and making these publicly available is a generic precautionary measure. 99.99% of UBOs have nothing to do with money laundering or terrorist financing. Even if it were proportionate to collect information on all UBOs, making that information available only to government agencies engaged in combating money laundering and terrorism should suffice. It is not appropriate to disclose that information to everyone. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) deemed this privacy violation to be disproportionate. This opinion, however, did not lead to an amendment of the European Directive.
When this Act was discussed in Dutch Parliament, fundamental criticism came from various corners of society. The business community made its voice heard because it perceived privacy risks and feared − and now indeed experiences − an increase in costs. UBOs of family-owned companies that have remained out of the public eye up until now are running major privacy and security risks. There was also a great deal of attention for the position of social organizations − such as church communities and NGOs − that attach great importance to the protection of those affiliated with them. Associations and foundations that do not have owners face a different burden: they have to put the data that are already in the Trade Register in yet another register. Unfortunately these complaints have not resulted in any changes to the legislation.
Legal proceedings look promising
Privacy First has initiated legal proceedings against the UBO register for violation of the fundamental right to privacy and the protection of personal data. Privacy First asks the Dutch court to render the UBO register inoperative in the short term and, if necessary, to submit questions of interpretation on this matter to the highest court in Europe, the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The Dutch Act as well as the underlying European directive are in conflict with both the European Charter of Fundamental Rights and the GDPR. It is the legislator who has created this legislation, but it will be up to the court to do a thorough review thereof. Ultimately, the court has the last word. If the (European) legislator fails to take adequate account of the protection of fundamental rights, then the (European) court can invalidate this legislation. This would not be unique. The Court of Justice of the European Union has previously declared legislation invalid due to privacy violations, for example the Data Retention Directive and, more recently, the Privacy Shield. Dutch courts too regularly annul privacy-invading regulations. Privacy First has previously successfully challenged the validity of legislation, for example in the proceedings concerning the Telecommunications Data Retention Act and the System Risk Indication (SyRI). Viewed against this background, a positive outcome in the case against the UBO register is all but unlikely.