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Centuries old in law, but are bills of lading keeping up?

By Dr David Cowan

19 October 2018 at 10:19 BST

Global law firm teams up with commercial body to assess if a centuries-old legal contract is keeping up with rapid technological change.


Global law firm Clyde & Co, in conjunction with the International Chamber of Commerce’s (ICC) Banking Commission, has launched a report on the legal status of electronic bills of lading.

Reflecting change?

The report considers whether the law in this area reflects the technological change that is rapidly occurring in the international trade sector. For centuries the principal document in international trade has been the bill of lading (B/L).  It is issued by the carrier and can be transferred from seller to buyer, often via their respective banks. The B/L is a 'document of title' in that the holder of the original B/L has specific legal rights in relation to the goods. The question remains whether those rights and liabilities are replicated if the original paper B/L is replaced by an electronic bill of Lading (eB/L). Similarly, there is currently uncertainty over the legal consequences if the eB/L is subsequently printed in paper format. The ICC Banking Commission appointed Clyde & Co to conduct a survey on the legal status of eB/Ls, whether in the form of an electronic record or in paper format when converted from an electronic record.

Survey scope

The survey covers the following ten jurisdictions:  UK (English law), USA (NY law), Germany, Netherlands, UAE, China, Singapore, Brazil, India and Russia. The report sets out the relevant issues and the results of the survey, which has been coordinated by London based Clyde & Co consultant Stephen Tricks and partner Robert Parson. Mr Tricks comments, ‘as technology continues to disrupt industry it is essential that the law can keep pace with new developments. We were therefore delighted to work with the ICC Banking Commission on this important report.’ Mr Edwards, lead of the legal work-stream of the ICC Digitalisation Working Group adds, ‘to work out what needs to change in the law to support digitalisation in this area, we first need to know what the law is today. The Clyde & Co report has given us a tremendously valuable starting point.’


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