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Constitutional Court cancels Tax on conversion of bearer shares
In October 2014, we reported on a decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union (9 October 2014, C-299/13, Isabelle Gielen v Ministerraad) in which the court had stated that the Belgian tax on the conversion of bearer shares into registered or dematerialised form was precluded by Article 5(2) of Directive 2008/7/EC of 12 February 2008 concerning indirect taxes on the raising of capital.  Moreover, the Court could not find a justification for such tax cannot in Article 6 of the Directive.

This decision was rendered on a request for a preliminary ruling from the Constitutional Court which had been seized by Mrs Gielen to invalidate the tax that was levied on the conversion of bearer shares into registered or dematerialised form.  By act of 14 December 2005, Parliament introduced legislation to gradually abolish bearer securities over a transitional period of six years starting in 2008. This law obliged Belgian companies to issue registered shares or bonds (recorded in the company's share register) or into dematerialised shares or bonds (registered in a securities account with a financial institution).

Between 2008 and 2013, issuers of bearer securities could convert their securities on a voluntary basis. However, securities that had not been converted by the end of December 2013 were automatically converted into dematerialised shares, or into registered shares if the company's articles of association allowed this. Since 1 January 2015, the issuer is authorised to sell any securities for which the owner is not known.

However, the Act of 28 December 2011 introduced a tax on the conversion of bearer shares. This tax was initially 1 percent (during 2012) calculated on the market value of the bearer securities. This tax was raised to 2 percent for all conversions in 2013 and thereafter.

Mrs Gielen attacked this conversion tax on the basis that it provided for an unjustifiable difference in treatment between shareholders who had subscribed registered shares or dematerialised shares (for which no conversion tax is due) and shareholders who had subscribed bearer shares. That is what the European Court of Justice confirmed.

The ball was now in the court of the Constitutional Court, and on 5 February 2015, the Constitutional Court did indeed declare null and void the Articles 61 to 69 of the Act of 28 December 2011 that introduced the tax on the conversion of bearer shares ... with retroactive effect. (decision 12/2015, with the text in Dutch and in French.

The consequence is that the conversion tax can be claimed back. Shareholders can file a claim with the bank where dematerialised shares are held on an account or with the issuing company (for registered shares). It is indeed the bank or the company that have paid the tax on behalf of the shareholders and they can claim back the tax from the Registration Tax Administration.

Marc Quaghebeur
Partner, De Broeck Van Laere & Partners
11 February 2015

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