Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
My Lords, I am sure that the Bill team behind me, to whom I add my thanks, will provide the legal thesaurus to answer the noble Lord’s question.
It is helpful to have a debate on Clause 3, as it is at the heart of the Bill. It provides that electronic trade documents are capable of possession and are, in all other ways, capable of having the same effect as paper trade documents. As my noble friend Lord Lansley said on the previous clause, this is an opportunity for us to show our working and reflect our helpful discussions in the committee with those who have kindly given evidence.
At several points during our deliberations, questions have arisen regarding the Bill’s approach to possession and exclusive control, particularly in comparison with the approach taken by the model law and Singapore. The Bill’s approach provides that a document that satisfies certain criteria, including being capable of exclusive control, qualifies as an electronic trade document, and that an electronic trade document can be possessed. The Singapore legislation and the model law provide that, if an electronic trade document can be exclusively controlled by a person, and if that person can be identified as the person in control, the document can satisfy a possession requirement. The main distinction between the two approaches is that the Singaporean and MLETR approach conceptualises exclusive control as a functional equivalent to possession, whereas the Bill provides expressly and directly that a document that can be exclusively controlled can be possessed.
The approach taken in the Bill was consciously chosen as the best solution for UK law for several reasons. Allowing the possession of electronic trade documents unambiguously removes the legal blocker currently preventing their recognition. It ensures that paper and electronic trade documents are subject to the same legal rules and laws, including that possessory concepts, such as pledge and conversion, apply to electronic trade documents in the same way they do to paper trade documents. This approach avoids the need fundamentally to rethink existing concepts of possession in respect of intangible assets, and it achieves equivalence with paper documents in a straightforward manner that is easy to understand for British businesses and global trade.
It is crucial for market certainty that electronic trade documents are able to plug directly into the existing legal framework applicable to paper trade documents. This identical treatment, irrespective of whether a document is in paper or electronic form, is particularly important, given the provisions in the Bill allowing for a change of medium, which are necessary to give parties flexibility as the industry seeks to effect the transition to electronic trade documents that we want to see.
Applying the concept of possession directly also preserves the role of intention in relation to electronic trade documents as it applies to paper. Intention is an important element of possession in UK law, and, as we heard in the oral evidence we received, it is possible to conceive of a situation in which a party has exclusive control of an electronic trade document but not the intention necessary for possession. Intention is relevant to determining who has possession of a paper trade document, and it should be equally relevant to the same documents in electronic form.
Possession is a common law concept with a significant and hugely valuable pedigree. The Bill in general, and Clause 3 in particular, is carefully worded to take advantage of this without risking the integrity of a well-established and foundational common law concept. Taking a different approach would require a fundamental reworking of the Bill.
Furthermore, the Bill deliberately does not define what it means to have possession of an electronic trade document. The Bill is concerned with features that an electronic trade document must exhibit in order to be possessable, and it includes a notion of control for this purpose only, rather than identifying who is in possession of it as a matter of fact or law, or both. Leaving the latter inquiry to the courts and common law is the preferable course of action. The common law has proven itself highly flexible and adaptable in this regard: existing common law has developed a range of tools to assist in determining what is, and who has, possession of a tangible asset at any particular time. This could include the related concept of constructive possession, which was raised in our evidence sessions as an important concept.
Although the common law of possession may need to be adapted in order to accommodate electronic trade documents, this is achievable without an explicit account of its relationship with control. This is largely because control is one of the two elements of possession as a matter of fact of common law.
Anyone with the ability to exercise control over an electronic trade document, such as anyone with knowledge of the private key or other security credentials, could thereby claim to have control and in turn a claim to possession. Where multiple people have competing claims to possession, existing rules on relativity of title will apply to determine the superior interest in any given situation.
The noble Lord asked about indorsement. It means an annotation in writing on the back of a paper trade document instructing that the obligation recorded therein be performed to the order of the person named in the indorsement or simply to order, which is called a blank indorsement. This instruction must be signed, and is usually completed by delivery. If the indorsement is a blank indorsement, the possessor of the document, whoever they may be, may indorse it in their turn. If the indorsement is to a named person, any subsequent indorsement must be by that person. It is an essential part of the transfer of many trade documents and any rights that attach to them. There is a business practice of indorsing paper documents on their reverse, which reflects that “indorsement” comes from the Latin “dorsus”, meaning back. The term is also used in the Bills of Exchange Act. I am glad that we have continued our learning process in this session.
Finally, on the subject of functional equivalence, it is worth noting that although Singapore is a common-law jurisdiction, it has diverged from the UK in the context of electronic communications and electronic commerce, where it has adopted other UNCITRAL model laws and the UK has not. The language of the MLETR might therefore be more compatible with Singapore’s existing law than it is with the UK’s. Its implementation without adaptation may raise fewer difficulties of interpretation there than it would in this jurisdiction. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said, different countries may take different approaches, but to all intents and purposes we are striving for the same ends.
As English law is the foundation of international trade, this Bill will put us ahead and in the lead not only of the G7 countries but of almost every other country in the world. The UK is setting the approach which all other jurisdictions will seek to follow, not just on the digitalisation of trade documents but on the future digitalisation of all trade, towards which this Bill is an important but merely foundational step.