Please note that the information provided herein is not legal advice and is provided for informational and educational purposes only. As always, my observations are based on current Ontario laws; you are cautioned not to rely on the information provided herein and that you should do your own due diligent on present and applicable Ontario laws.
Ever wonder about the legality and ethics of referral fees between Ontario realtors (note: I use the term “realtors” throughout this blog to mean real estate sales representatives) and lawyers? Say, for example, your realtor recommends a lawyer to close your deal. If you end up going with that lawyer, is it legal and ethical for the lawyer to pay a referral fee to the realtor?
The bottom line is that referral fees are prohibited as between a realtor and a lawyer. While the issue of whether a realtor can make a referral fee may be somewhat unclear, the Real Estate Council of Ontario has made a strong case that such fees are prohibited. A realtor is, however, capable of receiving a referral fee from a third party provided that such fees are first disclosed by the third party to the client and the client agrees (preferably in writing). In such a case, the third party would pay the referral fee to the realtor’s employer (i.e. the broker), who would in turn pay the realtor. Much like a realtor, however, a lawyer is not capable of making a referral fee to non-lawyers, but is capable of receiving such fees under the same conditions as would a realtor. Therefore, since neither a realtor nor a lawyer are capable of making referral fees (notwithstanding that they’re capable of receiving them) to one another, referral fees are prohibited as between them. Breach of this rule is both illegal and unethical.
The following analysis shows how I came to these conclusions.
Realtors and so-called “Bird-Dog” or Referral Fees
The combined effects of ss. 30(b) and (c) of the Real Estate Business and Brokers Act, 2002 provide that a broker shall not “pay any commission or other remuneration” to “employ or engage an unregistered person to trade in real estate”.
Here, a number of terms require further clarification.
Section 1 defines a broker as “a person who, for بهترین وکیل تهران another or others, for compensation, gain or reward or hope or promise thereof, either alone or through one or more officials or salespersons, trades in real estate, or a person who holds himself, herself or itself out as such”.
Moreover, s. 1 defines a salesperson as “a person employed, appointed or authorized by a broker to trade in real estate”. Here, the word “employ” means “to employ, appoint, authorize or otherwise arrange to have another person act on one’s behalf, including as an independent contractor”.
Finally, s. 1 defines a trade as including “a disposition or acquisition of or transaction in real estate by sale, purchase, agreement for sale, exchange, option, lease, rental or otherwise and any offer or attempt to list real estate for the purpose of such a disposition or transaction, and any act, advertisement, conduct or negotiation, directly or indirectly, in furtherance of any disposition, acquisition, transaction, offer or attempt, and the verb ‘trade’ has a corresponding meaning”.
Clearly, while no broker may pay any form of compensation to unregistered persons in furtherance of a trade in real estate, it is somewhat unclear whether salespersons (i.e. realtors) are also prohibited from doing so (because salespersons are not mentioned in s. 30). As Allan Johnson, Registrar of the Real Estate Council of Ontario, mentioned in a now expired Registrar’s Bulletin: “A question posed recently dealt with the salesperson and his or her right to pay some form of compensation in gratitude for leads provided. This issue may not be as clear.” Interestingly, RECO’s new Registrar’s Bulletin on Bird-Dog fees states that, “where a brokerage is aware of, or more obviously where the brokerage were to use an employee/salesperson as a conduit to pay some form of compensation, in an attempt to avoid the appropriate sanctions of the Act, this activity would be construed to be a violation”. So if a salesperson acted alone without the knowledge of the brokerage, would the latter be immune from liability? In the expired Registrar’s Bulletin, Mr. Johnson suggested two caveats which would seem to prohibit salespersons from providing referral fees:
“1. In light of the fact that salespersons are registered and employed by a specific broker and in fact act with the expressed authority of their broker employer, it may be argued that a salesperson’s action in paying compensation with either before or after tax dollars, may in fact be tantamount to the broker breaching section [30(b)] and/or