A bill of lading is a standard-form document that is transferable by endorsement (or by lawful transfer of possession). Most shipments by sea are covered by the Hague Rules, the Hague-Visby Rules or the Hamburg Rules, which require that the carrier MUST issue to the shipper a bill of lading identifying the nature, quantity, quality and leading marks of the goods.
In the case of Coventry v Gladstone, Lord Justice Blackburn defined a bill of lading as “A writing signed on behalf of the owner of ship in which goods are embarked, acknowledging the receipt of the Goods, and undertaking to deliver them at the end of the voyage, subject to such conditions as may be mentioned in the bill of lading.”
Roles and purposes of bill of lading
As cargo receipt
The principal use of the bill of lading is as a receipt issued by the carrier once the goods have been loaded onto the vessel. This receipt can be used as proof of shipment for customs and insurance purposes, and also as commercial proof of completing a contractual obligation, especially under Incoterms such as CFR (cost and freight) and FOB (free on board).
As evidence of the contract of carriage
The bill of lading will rarely be the contract itself, since the cargo space will have been booked previously, perhaps by telephone, email or letter. The preliminary contract will be acknowledged by both the shipper and carrier to incorporate the carrier’s standard terms of business. If the Hague-Visby Rules apply, then all of the Rules will be automatically annexed to the bill of lading, thus forming a statutory contract.
The bill of lading confers prima facie title over the goods to the named consignee or lawful holder. Under the “nemo dat quod non habet” rule (“no one gives what he doesn’t have”), a seller cannot pass better title than he himself has; so if the goods are subject to an encumbrance (such as a mortgage, charge or hypothec), or even stolen, the bill of lading will not grant full title to the holder.