Negotiable Instruments

Negotiable Instruments
Negotiable Instruments
Quick Summary of Negotiable Instruments

Negotiable instruments are documents that represent a promise to pay a specific amount of money to the holder of the instrument. These instruments, such as checks, promissory notes, and bills of exchange, are transferable from one person to another through endorsement or delivery. They provide a convenient and secure way to make payments and facilitate business transactions. The key characteristic of negotiable instruments is their negotiability, which means they can be freely transferred to another party who becomes the new holder and has the right to enforce payment. This flexibility and ease of transfer make negotiable instruments an essential tool in commerce and finance.

Full Definition Of Negotiable Instruments

Negotiable instruments are vital tools in commercial transactions, functioning as substitutes for money and facilitating the smooth transfer of funds. This legal overview aims to elucidate the nature, types, and legal principles governing negotiable instruments, with a particular focus on British law.

Definition and Characteristics

A negotiable instrument is a written document guaranteeing the payment of a specific amount of money, either on demand or at a set time, with the payer named on the document. The key characteristics of negotiable instruments include:

  • Transferability: They can be transferred from one person to another, usually through endorsement and delivery.
  • Holder in Due Course: The transferee, known as the holder in due course, can obtain better title than the transferor, free from certain defences that might be raised against the original payee.
  • Unconditional Promise or Order: They must contain an unconditional promise or order to pay a fixed amount of money.
  • Payable to Order or Bearer: The instrument must be payable either to order (a specified person) or to bearer (anyone in possession of the instrument).
  • Certainty of Payment: The amount and terms of payment must be clear and certain.

Types of Negotiable Instruments

The primary types of negotiable instruments are promissory notes, bills of exchange, and cheques.

Promissory Notes

A promissory note is a financial instrument that contains a written promise by one party (the maker) to pay another party (the payee) a definite sum of money, either on demand or at a specified future date. Key elements include:

  • Maker and Payee: The maker is the person who makes the promise to pay, and the payee is the person to whom the payment is promised.
  • Unconditional Undertaking: The promise to pay must be unconditional.
  • Fixed Sum: The amount to be paid must be certain and specified.

Bills of Exchange

A bill of exchange is an order made by one person (the drawer) to another (the drawee) to pay a certain sum to a third party (the payee) on demand or at a future date. Its main features include:

  • Drawer, Drawee, and Payee: The drawer is the person who creates the bill, the drawee is the person directed to pay, and the payee is the person entitled to receive the payment.
  • Unconditional Order: The order to pay must be unconditional.
  • Acceptance: The drawee must accept the bill to acknowledge their obligation to pay.
  • Transferability: Bills of exchange can be transferred by endorsement.


A cheque is a type of bill of exchange drawn on a bank and payable on demand. It involves:

  • Drawer, Drawee, and Payee: The drawer writes the cheque, the drawee is the bank, and the payee is the person or entity to be paid.
  • Demand Payment: Cheques are always payable on demand.
  • Bank Account: The drawer must have a bank account with the drawee bank.

Legal Framework in the United Kingdom

The primary legislation governing negotiable instruments in the UK is the Bills of Exchange Act 1882, which codifies the law relating to bills of exchange, promissory notes, and cheques.

The Bills of Exchange Act 1882

The Act is comprehensive and details the rights and obligations of parties involved in negotiable instruments. Key provisions include:

  • Definitions and Interpretations: The Act defines important terms and outlines the structure of negotiable instruments.
  • Form and Interpretation: It prescribes the necessary form and interpretation of bills of exchange, promissory notes, and cheques.
  • Negotiation: The Act describes how instruments can be negotiated (transferred).
  • Rights of Holder: It protects the rights of the holder in due course, allowing them to obtain better title than the transferor.
  • Liabilities: It outlines the liabilities of parties involved, including the drawer, drawee, acceptor, and endorser.
  • Dishonour and Notice: It provides procedures for handling the dishonour of instruments and the requirement for notice of dishonour.
  • Discharge: The Act specifies how obligations under a negotiable instrument can be discharged.

Key Concepts under the Act

Holder in Due Course: The holder in due course is a person who has obtained the instrument for value, in good faith, and without notice of any defect. They have a right to claim the amount due free from many defences that could be raised against the original payee.

Endorsement: Negotiable instruments can be transferred by endorsement, where the holder signs the back of the instrument. This can be a blank endorsement (just a signature, making it payable to the bearer) or a special endorsement (specifying a new payee).

Dishonour: If an instrument is dishonoured (i.e., not accepted or paid when due), the holder must give notice of dishonour to previous parties to preserve the right to claim payment.

Acceptance and Payment: A bill of exchange must be presented for acceptance to the drawee, who becomes the acceptor upon signing. Acceptance is necessary to establish the drawee’s obligation to pay. Payment discharges the instrument.

Practical Considerations and Case Law

Negotiability and Transfer

The ease of transfer and the legal protections afforded to holders in due course make negotiable instruments attractive in commerce. The law ensures that these instruments can circulate freely, providing liquidity and facilitating trade.

Case Law Examples

  • Smith v. Prosser (1907): This case illustrated the importance of presenting a cheque for payment within a reasonable time. Failure to do so can result in loss of recourse against prior endorsers.
  • National Provincial Bank v. Charnley (1924): Here, the court held that a forged endorsement renders the instrument void, emphasizing the need for authenticity in endorsements.

Legal Issues and Defences

  • Forgery: If a negotiable instrument is forged, it is null and void. The genuine parties are not liable on a forged instrument.
  • Material Alteration: Any unauthorized alteration of a negotiable instrument renders it void, except against parties who made, authorized, or assented to the alteration.
  • Non-Delivery: If an instrument is issued but not delivered, the person in possession may not have the right to enforce it.

International Context

Negotiable instruments are not only governed by national laws but also by international conventions. The Geneva Conventions on Bills of Exchange and Promissory Notes (1930) and Cheques (1931) attempt to harmonize laws across different jurisdictions.

Modern Developments and Digital Instruments

With technological advancements, digital negotiable instruments are emerging. E-commerce and electronic transactions have led to the development of electronic promissory notes and e-cheques. However, these digital instruments still adhere to the basic principles of traditional negotiable instruments.


Negotiable instruments remain a cornerstone of commercial law, providing a reliable method for the transfer of funds and credit. The Bills of Exchange Act 1882 offers a robust legal framework, ensuring the security and transferability of these instruments. Despite modern technological advancements, the fundamental principles governing negotiable instruments continue to facilitate smooth commercial transactions. Understanding these principles is crucial for legal practitioners, businesses, and individuals engaged in commerce.

Negotiable Instruments FAQ'S

A negotiable instrument is a written document that promises to pay a specific amount of money to the bearer or a designated person. Examples include checks, promissory notes, and bills of exchange.

To be considered negotiable, an instrument must be in writing, signed by the maker or drawer, contain an unconditional promise or order to pay, be payable on demand or at a specific time, and be payable in a specific currency.

Yes, negotiable instruments are designed to be easily transferable. They can be transferred by endorsement (signing the back) and delivery, making the new holder the rightful owner of the instrument.

Negotiation refers to the transfer of ownership rights from one party to another. When a negotiable instrument is negotiated, the new holder becomes the legal owner and can enforce payment against the party liable to pay.

The parties involved in negotiable instruments have different liabilities. The maker or drawer is primarily liable for payment, while endorsers and subsequent holders may be secondarily liable if the instrument is dishonored.

Yes, a negotiable instrument can be dishonored if the party responsible for payment fails to honor their obligation. Common reasons for dishonor include insufficient funds, a forged signature, or a stop payment order.

The statute of limitations for enforcing negotiable instruments varies by jurisdiction. In many cases, it is typically around three to six years from the date of dishonor or the due date of the instrument.

Any material alteration or modification to a negotiable instrument without the consent of all parties involved will render it invalid. It is crucial to maintain the integrity of the instrument to ensure its enforceability.

If a negotiable instrument is not paid, the holder has the right to take legal action against the party liable for payment. This may involve filing a lawsuit to recover the amount due, plus any applicable interest and legal fees.

Yes, there are certain defences available to parties against payment of a negotiable instrument. These defences may include fraud, forgery, duress, lack of consideration, or breach of contract. It is essential to consult with a legal professional to determine the validity of any defence.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 6th June 2024.

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