Electronic bills of ladings – a legal analysis

TradeTrust (TT), a digital trade documentation framework and system developed by the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) in Singapore, has published a new paper outlining the legal ramifications of the maritime and wider logistics industry moving from paper to electronic Bills of Lading.

The paper was prepared by law firm Stephenson Harwood LLP, in conjunction with Virtus Law LLP and with input on US trade law from Blank Rome LLP, in collaboration with IMDA. The aim of the publication is to provide an analysis of eBLs and the TradeTust digital documentation framework, including a comparison between paper bills of lading and contract-based electronic BLs.

The document also addresses concerns related to TT eBLs, including legal and technical issues, and provides practical advice for their implementation and use in jurisdictions with differing approaches.

As the paper notes, until recently only paper transferable documents were legally valid as Bills of Lading, hindering the digitalisation of global trade. However, the adoption of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records (MLETR) by jurisdictions like Singapore and Bahrain has paved the way for the use of electronic transferable documents in their place.

The recent addition of support by the United Kingdom for digital trade documentation is another significant milestone, given that English law is frequently chosen as the governing law for trade documents.

TradeTrust (TT) offers a digital framework enabling the issuance, endorsement, verification, and transmission of electronic trade documents supported by statutory law between transacting parties across different digital platforms, available for use free of charge by all stakeholders using its open-source code.

Unlike contract-based electronic BLs, TradeTrust-enabled electronic bills of lading (TT eBLs) can be transferred freely across jurisdictions and beyond the immediate contracting parties, having been designed with technical features that comply with the criteria for ‘electronic transferable records’ set out in the MLETR.

If parties choose a governing law that is MLETR-compliant or aligned, such as Singapore, English, New York, or Delaware law, these legal systems will recognise the legal equivalence of a TT eBL with a paper BL.

This framework can also be extended beyond eBLs to the digitalisation of any verifiable documents and other classes of transferable records that could qualify under the MLETR as electronic transferable records, including bills of exchange, warehouse receipts, and promissory notes.

You can access the full paper on the legal issues surrounding electronic bills of lading here.

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Rob O'Dwyer

Rob is Chief Network Officer and one of the founders of Smart Maritime Network. He also serves as Chairman of the Smart Maritime Council. Rob has worked in the maritime technology sector since 2005, managing editorial for a range of leading publications in the transport and logistics sector. Get in touch by email by clicking here, or on LinkedIn by clicking here.

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