These “Rules” are sets of internationally-agreed, standard conditions which apply to contracts for carriage of goods by sea (“COGS”) when the contracts are covered by a bill of lading or similar “document of title” including a bill of lading issued under a charterparty or complying with a charterparty. Their main function is generally to establish a system of responsibilities of the carrier under every contract of carriage of goods by sea. They also permit the carrier to enjoy certain rights and immunities (from liabilities) under the contract.
The Rules can be part of the conditions of a COGS in two ways. One way is by giving them the force of law by legislation, thus making them compulsory if goods are carried from (or to) a country and a bill of lading has been issued, evidencing the contract of carriage. Such legislation can be generally called a “Carriage of Goods by Sea Act” (“COGSA”). A second way in which they become part of the contract evidenced or contained in a bill of lading is by inserting a clause in the document stating the contract is subject to one set of Rules. This clause is called a “Paramount clause” or, sometimes, “Clause paramount”. A Paramount clause can also be found in a charterparty although, strictly, the provisions of the Rules themselves do not apply to charterparties, only to bills of lading issued under charterparties. Such a clause in a charterparty is mainly for the purpose of incorporating the provisions of the Rules in such bills of lading. However, owing to the principle of “freedom of contract” there is nothing to prevent a carrier/shipowner and a charterer/shipper from applying the Rules to a charter.
An example of a simple “Clause paramount” is:
“The Hague Rules as Amended by the Brussels Protocol 1968 shall apply to this Charterparty and to any Bills of Lading issued hereunder. The Charterers shall procure that all Bills of Lading issued under this Charterparty shall contain a clause to include these rules.”
The Hague Rules were first formulated in 1924. Developments in the carriage of goods by sea, for example, containerisation, caused a set of amendments (and additions) to be agreed in 1968. This was the “Brussels Protocol”. The amended set of Rules is referred to generally as the Hague-Visby Rules, “Visby” being the name of a place in the Baltic Sea from which old maritime law originated. The use of “Visby” is merely traditional.