Premier Doug Ford’s new online business registry is so rife with “system shutdowns, technical glitches and substantive problems” that major law firms are advising clients to register out-of-province, the Star has learned.
In a searing letter to Government and Consumer Services Minister Ross Romano, the Bay Street pillars warn the month-old Ontario Business Registry “is negatively impacting our firms, clients and service providers” and is “having a chilling effect on doing business in Ontario in general.”
The 12-page missive is a blow to Ford’s much-ballyhooed “open for business” push because all companies and not-for-profit corporations must register to incorporate or to dissolve here.
“We represent hundreds of thousands of entities trying to carry on business in Ontario,” the law firms wrote Friday.
“The system shutdowns, technical glitches and substantive problems associated with the new OBR are causing significant disruption, delaying transactions and adding significant costs for businesses,” they continued.
“Given our collective OBR experiences to date, we have no confidence or assurances that year-end registrations and filings — the busiest time of the year for our law firms — can be completed without putting entire transactions at risk.”
Because of that, many firms “are now recommending to their lawyers and clients that the creation or use of Ontario entities in corporate transactions be avoided if possible, and that the use of federal entities or other provincial jurisdictions are being recommended in order to not jeopardize the successful completion of many year-end transactions.”
The joint letter was signed by: Aird & Berlis; Bennett Jones; Blake, Cassels & Graydon; Borden Ladner Gervais; Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg; Dentons; Fasken Martineau DuMoulin; Goodmans; Gowling; McCarthy Tétrault; McMillan; Norton Rose Fulbright; Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt; Stikeman Elliott; Torys; and Wildeboer Dellelce.
Romano’s office conceded there are teething problems with the new system, but emphasized those are already being addressed, including a patch installed Monday — after the firms’ letter of complaint.
“The new business registry is in its early stages of deployment and the ministry is committed to its continuous, timely improvement to better serve Ontarians,” said Sebastian Skamski, Romano’s director of communications.
In contrast to the old system, which often entailed lawyers lugging boxes of documents to government offices to register businesses, the portal is open 24 hours a day and can be used by anyone.
It was developed by Teranet and is operated by the Ontario government.
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“The new Ontario Business Registry replaced a three-decade old, outdated, and inefficient ONBIS (Ontario Business Information System) process,” said Skamski.
“Since its launch on Oct. 19, over 120,000 transactions have been successfully completed through the new business registry,” said Skamski, adding the ministry “takes all stakeholder feedback very seriously.”
“In this vein, while our ministry has continuously engaged with service providers on a near daily basis, we will be reengaging the (external stakeholders communications committee) and including a greater focus on the role of intermediaries, such as law firms.”
Fees range from $25 to dissolve a business to $300 for incorporation. It costs $150 to register a not-for-profit corporation.
While the modernization process dates back more than a decade to when Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty was in office, Ford accelerated development as part of a “pro-business” agenda.
That makes the salvo from the city’s most prestigious law offices a political embarrassment for the Progressive Conservative government.
“All of our law firms are familiar with complicated legal technology rollouts — they are never perfect nor error free,” the firms wrote.
“The two authorized service providers (Dye & Durham and ESC) are overwhelmed and we have been advised that they are each responding to hundreds of calls a day relating to OBR errors.”
Among the litany of problems cited are system crashes during business hours, data migration snafus, and document-formatting bugs so “there are no paragraph returns or proper spacing.”
“Having all sections and subsections crammed together in one paragraph makes reviewing articles extremely difficult, time consuming and cumbersome. Extra time must be spent proofreading, it is not esthetically pleasing and there is greater chance for error,” they complained.
“The 100,000 character and 35-page limit for articles is arbitrary, inadequate and completely unacceptable.”
In one unusual instance, a draft business renewal appeared to be correct when reviewed online, but “the confirmation received indicated it was authorized by a lawyer who had retired from the firm seven years ago.”
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
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