Bill of Lading

A bill of lading (sometimes referred to as a BOL,or B/L) is a document issued by a carrier to a shipper, acknowledging that specified goods have been received on board as cargo for conveyance to a named place for delivery to the consignee who is usually identified. A through bill of lading involves the use of at least two different modes of transport from road, rail, air, and sea. The term derives from the verb "to lade" which means to load a cargo onto a ship or other form of transport.

A bill of lading can be used as a traded object. The standard short form bill of lading is evidence of the contract of carriage of goods and it serves a number of purposes:
  • It is evidence that a valid contract of carriage, or a chartering contract, exists, and it may incorporate the full terms of the contract between the consignor and the carrier by reference (i.e. the short form simply refers to the main contract as an existing document, whereas the long form of a bill of lading (connaissement intégral) issued by the carrier sets out all the terms of the contract of carriage);
  • It is a receipt signed by the carrier confirming whether goods matching the contract description have been received in good condition (a bill will be described as clean if the goods have been received on board in apparent good condition and stowed ready for transport); and
  • It is also a document of transfer, being freely transferable but not a negotiable instrument in the legal sense, i.e. it governs all the legal aspects of physical carriage, and, like a cheque or other negotiable instrument, it may be endorsed affecting ownership of the goods actually being carried. This matches everyday experience in that the contract a person might make with a commercial carrier like FedEx for mostly airway parcels, is separate from any contract for the sale of the goods to be carried, however it binds the carrier to its terms, irrespectively of who the actual holder of the B/L, and owner of the goods, may be at a specific moment.

Main types of bill

Straight bill of lading
This bill states that the goods are consigned to a specified person and it is not negotiable free from existing equities, i.e. any endorsee acquires no better rights than those held by the endorser. So, for example, if the carrier or another holds a lien over the goods as security for unpaid debts, the endorsee is bound by the lien. Although, if the endorser wrongfully failed to disclose the charge, the endorsee will have a right to claim damages for failing to transfer an unencumbered title. Also known as a non-negotiable bill of lading; and from the banker's point of view this type of bill of lading is not safe.

Order bill of lading
This bill uses express words to make the bill negotiable, e.g. it states that delivery is to be made to the further order of the consignee using words such as "delivery to A Ltd. or to order or assigns". Consequently, it can be endorsed by A Ltd. or the right to take delivery can be transferred by physical delivery of the bill accompanied by adequate evidence of A Ltd.'s intention to transfer.

Bearer bill of lading
This bill states that delivery shall be made to whosoever holds the bill. Such bill may be created explicitly or it is an order bill that fails to nominate the consignee whether in its original form or through an endorsement in blank. A bearer bill can be negotiated by physical delivery.

Surrender bill of lading
Under a term import documentary credit the bank releases the documents on receipt from the negotiating bank but the importer does not pay the bank until the maturity of the draft under the relative credit. This direct liability is called Surrender Bill of Lading (SBL), i.e. when we hand over the bill of lading we surrender title to the goods and our power of sale over the goods.

Other terminology
A sea or air waybill is a non-negotiable receipt issued by the carrier. It is most common in the container trade either where the cargo is likely to arrive before the formal documents or where the shipper does not insist on separate bills for every item of cargo carried (e.g. because this is one of a series of loads being delivered to the same consignee). Delivery is made to the consignee who identifies himself. It is customary in transactions where the shipper and consignee are the same person in law making the rigid production of documents unnecessary.
The UK's Carriage of Goods by Sea Act 1992 creates a further class of document known as a ship's delivery order which contains an undertaking to carry goods by sea but is neither a bill nor a waybill.
A straight bill of lading by land or sea, or sea/air waybill are not documents of title to the goods they represent. They do no more than require delivery of the goods to the named consignee and (subject to the shipper's ability to redirect the goods) to no other. This differs from an "order" or "bearer" bill of lading which are possessory title documents and negotiable, i.e. they can be endorsed and so transfer the right to take delivery to the last endorsee.