Letters Patent

Letters patent are a legal document created by the B.C. government. Incorporating letters patent establish the framework by which a municipality or regional district is created.

History & Definition

As part of its constitutional authority over "municipal institutions", the B.C. government issues letters patent to incorporate local governments. The Legislature has delegated the authority to create local governments to the Lieutenant Governor in Council (that is, the Lieutenant Governor acting on the advice of Cabinet). Letters patent, which are defined in the Interpretation Act as a type of regulation, are issued by the Lieutenant Governor in Council under an Order in Council (OIC).

There are some exceptions to the use of letters patent for incorporation -- City of Vancouver, Resort Municipality of Whistler and City of Powell River are examples of municipalities incorporated directly by the Legislature.

Legislative Powers & Limitations

Letters patent are often considered the constituting documents of a local government, setting out its boundaries, name, and other specific matters.

Letters patent are issued when a local government is created (incorporated) or when something included in letters patent is amended, such as the boundary. Letters patent are typically tailored to a local government's needs, and they can only provide a local government with authorities available in statutes. The minister responsible for local government does not have the authority to create new authorities in letters patent.

Letters patent may include special provisions that are customized permanent or temporary measures to adapt to local governance needs. Examples of special provisions include:

  • Property tax rate limits
  • Provisions for island municipalities, resource development municipalities or mountain resort municipalities
  • Authority for revenue-sharing among local governments.

Letters patent may also include specialized provisions, such as those for the purposes of preventing, minimizing or otherwise addressing any transitional issues, subject to specific limitations (for example, may not eliminate a requirement for obtaining the assent of the electors, unless replaced with a requirement for obtaining the approval of the electors by alternative approval process).

Over time, the form and approach of letters patent have changed. Historically, letters patent used "metes and bounds" to describe the boundary of a local government through a point to point narrative text. Since 2010, the B.C. government has been working to replace the metes and bounds with maps attached as schedules to the letters patent to represent the boundary.

Other changes to letters patent reflect changes in legal practices. For example, letters patent today do not restate provisions already contained in provincial legislation. If appropriate, exceptions to normal legislative rules would be stated in the letters patent.

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Notification & Publication of Letters Patent

Some notice and publication steps must be taken when letters patent are issued or amended. The Publication of Letters Patent Regulation specifies that if the letters patent are issued or amended, the minister responsible for local government must publish notification of amendment and where a copy of the amended letters patent can be obtained. This notice is published in the BC Gazette (Part 1).

If a local government's letter patent are amended, the originals are sent to local government with a copy of the OIC that issued them. Copies of letters patent can be found on the BC Laws website, under the "Orders in Council" tab.

Content of Local Government Letters Patent

Legislation, such as the Local Government Act and the Community Charter, is the key source of most local government powers and requirements. Letters patent provide for some core elements such as boundaries and name, but are not a substitute for legislative powers.

Letters patent are an important part of the creation (incorporation) of a local government, and are most commonly changed when something fundamental in an existing local government changes (for example, its boundaries). Such a change requires amendment to letters patent. When letters patent are amended, only those sections affected by the change will be amended, and it is important to remember that letters patent are a cumulative document where amendments will affect previous content. For example, if a provision is added to letters patent without a time limit, then that provision will be current until it is amended or repealed.

Sometimes a local government needs to seek electoral approval before certain changes can be made to letters patent. For example, if a municipality wants to extend their boundary, it first requires electoral approval (either through electors assent or the alternative approval process). A municipal council could request that the change be made to letters patent only after that approval has been received.

Municipal Letters Patent

The Local Government Act is the enabling legislation for incorporation of municipalities by letters patent. Following a vote of electors in the proposed incorporation, and a recommendation from the minister responsible for local government, the Lieutenant Governor in Council may issue incorporating letters patent that specify the municipality's name, boundaries, area and classification. Other matters that may be contained in letters patent include governance structure and servicing arrangements. Upon incorporation of a municipality, the minister responsible for local government will present the mayor and council of the newly incorporated area with the original letters patent. A copy of the letters patent will be given to the designated regional district.

A change in boundary is the most common reason that municipal letters patent are amended. These changes are following a boundary extension process.

Regional District Letters Patent

Section 41(2) of the Local Government Act outlines what must be contained in the incorporating letters paten for a regional district. This includes the regional district's name, boundaries, electoral area boundaries, voting unit and which municipalities and electoral areas comprise the regional district.

Historically, the Lieutenant Governor in Council provided common service authorities, such as water or recreation, to regional districts by letters patent (often referred to as supplementary letters patent if enacted at some date after incorporation).

In 1989 the legislation was amended to detail, in what is now the Local Government Act, which powers regional districts have and which services they could provide. Since this change, regional districts may establish services going forward by simply passing service establishment bylaws, with needed electoral and other approvals.

Regional districts may also continue services that were previously established by letters patent if the regional district was providing that service in August 2000. That continuation must be done by the regional district adopting a service establishment bylaw but adoption does not require electoral approval, as the bylaw continues a previously established service and the support of electors or property owners in the area has been previously confirmed.

Often, when letters patent for a municipality are amended, the regional district letters patent will also have to be amended. Under section 41(3) of the Local Government Act, no area of an electoral area can be within a municipality. Therefore every time a municipal boundary extension occurs, the corresponding electoral area is reduced.

Regional districts wishing to change the outer boundary of their regional district or reconfigure one or more electoral areas within the regional district must go through a restructure process before such changes can be made.