Lloyd's Maritime and Commercial Law Quarterly

The freight forwarder as carrier: the purpose of house bills of lading

Simone Lamont-Black *

The freight forwarder’s business has changed over time. In modern times the forwarder is no longer acting merely as agent but offers a variety of services, including carriage services. The services undertaken are usually confirmed in the documents the freight forwarder issues, which set out forwarding instructions, confirm receipt of the goods for transport or provide a carriage document. Where the carriage document is issued as a freight forwarder’s “house bill of lading”, uncertainty remains with regard to the legal character of the document and the obligations enshrined therein. This uncertainty is created by conflicting statements in legal literature, conflicting case law and poor documentary practice of freight forwarders. However, for parties trading in goods by way of transfer of their carriage documents (eg, a bill of lading), reliability of the status and content of these documents and predictability are key. Where documents can be disputed, trading parties, carriers or forwarders may be left in a vacuum trying to identify their contracting party and who has responsibility for the goods. This paper examines the origins of the confusion over house bills of lading, traces case law in its historical context, sets out the modern development in which freight forwarders are acting nowadays and makes a number of recommendations to strengthen the trend observable in current case law of validating the documentary choices the forwarder makes when issuing its bills of lading.

* Senior Lecturer in International Trade Law at the University of Edinburgh. My gratitude goes to Professor Alexandra Braun and Professor Laura MacGregor, both of Edinburgh University, and Professor Paul Myburgh of Auckland University of Technology, for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Any errors remain my own. I would also like to thank the Centre for Maritime Law (CML), Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore for the funding and research fellowship at the Centre that contributed to this research. A big thank you also goes to Professor Dr Stephen Girvin, Director of CML, and David Glass of Cardiff University, for the engaged discussions on the topic and to the anonymous reviewer for their comments.
The following abbreviations are used:
Carver: FD Rose and FMB Reynolds, Carver on Bills of Lading, 5th edn (London, 2022);
COGSA: Carriage of Goods by Sea Act;
De Wit: R De Wit, Multimodal Transport: Carrier Liability and Documentation (London, 1995);
FIATA: International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations;
Girvin: S Girvin, Carriage of Goods by Sea, 3rd edn (Oxford, 2022);
Glass: DA Glass, Freight Forwarding and Multimodal Transport Contracts, 2nd edn (London, 2012);
Goods in Transit: P Bugden, Goods in Transit, 5th edn (London, 2023);
Hill: DJ Hill, Freight Forwarding (London, 1972);
ICC: International Chamber of Commerce, Paris;
Ramberg, “Freight forwarder law”: J Ramberg, “Freight forwarder law”, in Modern Law for Global Commerce: Proceedings of the Congress of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law held on the Occasion of the Fortieth Session of the Commission, Vienna, 9–12 July 2007 (United Nations, 2011), 257 (available online at https://uncitral.un.org/sites/uncitral.un.org/files/media-documents/uncitral/en/09-83930_ebook.pdf).
Reynolds, “Liability of Freight Forwarders”: FMB Reynolds, “The Liability of Freight Forwarders”, ch 14 of B Soyer and A Tettenborn (eds), Carriage of Goods by Sea, Land and Air: Uni-modal and Multi-modal Transport in the 21st Century (London, 2013) 253;
Scrutton: D Foxton et al, Scrutton on Charterparties and Bills of Lading, 24th edn (London, 2020);
Tetley: W Tetley, Marine Cargo Claims, 4th edn (Paris, 2008);
UCP: ICC Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits;
UNCITRAL: United Nations Commission on International Trade Law;
UNCTAD: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

The freight forwarder as carrier: the purpose of house bills


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