A lien (/ˈln/ or /ˈlən/)[Note 1] is a form of security interest granted over an item of property to secure the payment of a debt or performance of some other obligation. The owner of the property, who grants the lien, is referred to as the lienee[3] and the person who has the benefit of the lien is referred to as the lienor[4] or lien holder.

The etymological root is Anglo-French lien or loyen, meaning "bond", "restraint", from the Latin ligamen, from ligare "to bind".

In the United States, the term lien generally refers to a wide range of encumbrances and would include other forms of mortgage or charge. In the US, a lien characteristically refers to nonpossessory security interests (see generally: Security interest § Types).

In other common-law countries, the term lien refers to a very specific type of security interest, being a passive right to retain (but not sell) property until the debt or other obligation is discharged. In contrast to the usage of the term in the US, in other countries it refers to a purely possessory form of security interest; indeed, when possession of the property is lost, the lien is released.[5] However, common-law countries also recognize a slightly anomalous form of security interest called an "equitable lien", which arises in certain rare instances.

Despite their differences in terminology and application, there are some similarities between liens in the US and elsewhere in the common-law world.

United States

Liens can be "consensual" or "nonconsensual" ("voluntary" or "involuntary" in different states). Consensual liens are imposed by a contract between the creditor and the debtor:

Nonconsensual liens typically arise by statute or by the operation of the common law. Those laws give a creditor the right to impose a lien on an item of real property or a chattel by the existence of the relationship of creditor and debtor. Those liens include:

Liens are also "perfected" or "unperfected" (see Perfection (law)). Perfected liens are those for which a creditor has established a priority right in the encumbered property concerning third-party creditors. Perfection is generally accomplished by taking steps required by law to notify third-party creditors of the lien. The fact that an item of property is in the hands of the creditor usually constitutes perfection. Where the property remains in the hands of the debtor, a further step must be taken, like recording a notice of the security interest with the appropriate office.

Perfecting a lien is essential in protecting the secured creditor's interest in the property. A perfected lien is valid against bona fide purchasers of property and even against a trustee in bankruptcy; an unperfected lien may not be.

Equitable lien (U.S.)

In the United States, references to an "equitable lien" is a right, enforceable only in equity, to have a demand satisfied out of a particular fund or specific property without having possession of the fund or property. An equitable lien is a legal remedy rather than a security interest created to contemplate or support a transaction. In US law, such liens characteristically arise in four circumstances:[6]

  1. when an occupant of land, believing in good faith to be the owner of the land, makes improvements, repairs, or other expenditure that permanently increases the land's value;
  2. when one of two or more joint owners makes expenditures of the kind described above;
  3. when a tenant for life completes permanent and beneficial improvements to the estate begun earlier by the testator; and
  4. when land or other property is transferred subject to the payment of debts, legacies, portions, or annuities to third persons.

Mover's lien

Movers are typically entitled to a mover's lien under UCC § 7-307/308 to withhold a customer's goods to secure payment. This is a possessory lien and is the nonconsensual type of lien (because it exists automatically under a statute instead of being affirmatively agreed upon). However, the concept of a mover's lien is often abused in a moving scam known as a hostage load, whereby the moving company will extort money not owed by the customer by refusing to deliver the goods unless the customer pays money inflated beyond the contractual estimate. Because the customer is interested in obtaining their goods, they are under duress to pay the ransom. Hostage loads in at least the interstate context are illegal under 49 USC 13905. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulates the moving industry and sometimes takes enforcement action by fining and delicensing offending moving companies. Moving companies that deliberately engage in hostage-loading may also be considered to be engaging in racketeering in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Disputes between legitimate lienholding of chattels versus hostage-loading can sometimes be averted by the customer, including an advanced (before-the-fact) consensual waiver of the mover's right to a lien in the written contract, obligating the moving company to deliver the goods with reasonable dispatch regardless of payment disputes. Failure to do so would constitute conversion or trespass to chattels.[7][8][9]

Other common-law countries

Outside the US, a common-law lien may be defined as a passive right to retain a chattel (and, sometimes, documentary intangibles and papers) conferred by law. Modern law has generally left the legal lien to cases where it has been historically established without any real effort to make it applicable to current conditions. In Tappenden v Artus [1964] 2 QB 185, Diplock LJ referred to a lien as a "self-help" remedy, like "other primitive remedies such as abatement of a nuisance, self-defence or ejection of trespassers to land". Equitable liens are an unusual species of property right, usually considered sui generis.

Common-law lien

Common-law liens are divided into special liens and general liens. A special lien, the more common kind, requires a close connection between the property and the service rendered. A special lien can only be exercised regarding fees relating to the instant transaction; the lienor cannot use the property held as security for past debts. A general lien affects all of the property of the lienee in the possession of the lienor and stands as security for all of the debts of the lienee to the lienor. A special lien can be extended to a general lien by contract, which is commonly done in the case of carriers.[10] A common-law lien only gives a passive right to retain; there is no power of sale which arises at common law,[11] although some statutes have also conferred an additional power of sale,[12] and it is possible to confer a separate power of sale by contract.

The common-law liens are closely aligned to the so-called "common callings" but are not co-extensive with them.

A common-law lien is a very limited type of security interest. Apart from the fact that it only amounts to a passive right to retain, a lien cannot be transferred;[13] it cannot be asserted by a third party to whom possession of the goods is given to perform the same services that the original party should have performed;[14] and if the chattel is surrendered to the lienor, the lien entitlement is lost forever[15] (except for where the parties agree that the lien shall survive a temporary re-possession by the lienor). A lienee who sells the chattel unlawfully may be liable for conversion and surrendering the lien.[16]

Equitable lien

In common-law countries, equitable liens give rise to unique and complex issues. An equitable lien is a nonpossessory security right conferred by operation of law, which is similar in effect to an equitable charge. It differs from a charge in that it is nonconsensual. It is conferred only in very limited circumstances, the most common (and least ambiguous) concerning the sale of land; an unpaid vendor has an equitable lien over the land for the purchase price, notwithstanding that the purchaser has gone into occupation of the property. It is seen as a counterweight to the equitable rule, which confers a beneficial interest in the land on the purchaser once contracts are exchanged for purchase.

It is a matter of conjecture how far equitable liens extend outside the unpaid vendor's lien. Equitable liens have been held to exist in several cases involving choses in action, but not yet concerning chattels.[17] The Australian courts have been the most receptive towards equitable liens concerning personal property (see Hewett v Court (1983) 57 ALJR 211), but a review of the cases still leaves a lack of clarity concerning the principles upon which an equitable lien will be imposed.

But overall, there is still a lack of central nexus.[18]

Statutory liens and contractual liens

Although arguably not liens as such, two other forms of encumbrance are sometimes referred to as liens.

Statutory liens

Certain statutes provide a passive right to retain property against its owner as security for obligations. For example, section 88 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 of the United Kingdom permits an airport to detain aircraft for unpaid airport charges and aviation fuel. Although this right has been treated as a lien under UK insolvency law,[19] it has been argued that such statutory rights are not in fact liens, but rights analogous to liens,[20] although an argument may be made that this is a distinction without a difference.

Contractual liens

It has also been argued that an agreement by contract that one party may retain the goods of another party until paid is not a lien,[20] as under the common law, liens could only be nonconsensual. However, under insolvency law, such rights will be treated as liens even if they are not expressed as liens.[19]

Maritime liens

Main article: Maritime lien

A maritime lien is a lien on a vessel given to secure the claim of a creditor who provided maritime services or suffered an injury from the vessel's use. Maritime liens are sometimes referred to as tacit hypothecation. Maritime liens have little in common with other liens under the laws of most jurisdictions.

The maritime lien has been described as "one of the most striking peculiarities of Admiralty law".[21] A maritime lien constitutes a security interest upon ships of a nature otherwise unknown to the common law or equity. It arises purely by operation of law. It is a claim upon the property, both secret and invisible, often given priority by statute over other forms of registered security interest.[22] Although characteristics vary under the laws of different countries, it can be described as:

  1. a privileged claim,
  2. upon maritime property,
  3. for service to it or damage done by it,
  4. accruing from the moment that the claim attaches,
  5. travelling with the property unconditionally,
  6. enforced by an action in rem.[21]


Throughout the world, there are many different types and sub-divisions of liens. Not all of the following liens exist in all legal systems that recognise the concept of a lien. The following are descriptions that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Types of lien include:

See also


  1. ^ The pronunciation /ˈln/ is more common in US English.[1][2]


  1. ^ "lien - definition of lien in English - Oxford Dictionaries". Archived from the original on August 2, 2013.
  2. ^ "The American Heritage Dictionary entry: lien". HarperCollins.
  3. ^ "Lienee...One whose property is subject to a lien". Black's Law Dictionary, p. 832 (5th ed. 1979).
  4. ^ "Lienor... The person having or owning a lien; one who has a right of lien upon property of another". Black's Law Dictionary, p. 832 (5th ed. 1979).
  5. ^ Hatton v Car Maintenance [1915] 1 Ch 621
  6. ^ Black's Law Dictionary (8th ed.)
  7. ^ "Holding Freight Hostage: The Legal Wild West Of The Transportation Industry - Transport - United States".
  8. ^ "Regulations".
  9. ^ LII Staff (20 November 2012). "Part 3. Bills of Lading: Special Provisions".
  10. ^ George Baker Ltd v Eynon [1974] 1 WLR 462
  11. ^ Thames Iron Works v Patent Derrick (1860) 1 J&H 93
  12. ^ In the United Kingdom, see for example, Innkeepers Act 1878
  13. ^ Legg v Evans (1840) 6 M&W 36
  14. ^ Pennington v Reliance Motors Ltd [1923] 1 KB 127
  15. ^ Hatton v Car Maintenance [1915] 1 Ch 621
  16. ^ Mulliner v Florence (1878) 3 QBD 484
  17. ^ Transport and General Credit v Morgan [1939] 2 All ER 17
  18. ^ See Phillips J, "Equitable Liens—A search for a unifying principle" in Palmer & McKendrick, Interests in Goods (2nd ed.)
  19. ^ a b Bristol Airport v Powdrill [1990] Ch 744
  20. ^ a b Michael Bridge, Personal Property Law (2nd ed.)
  21. ^ a b Griffith Price, The Law of Maritime Liens (1940)
  22. ^ Bankers Trust v Todd Shipyards, The Halcyon Isle [1981] AC 221
  23. ^ A. H. Millichamp (2002). Auditing. Cengage Learning EMEA. pp. 141–. ISBN 0-8264-5500-X.
  24. ^ Bryan A. Garner (2011). Garner's Dictionary of Legal Usage. Oxford University Press. pp. 155–. ISBN 978-0-19-538420-8.
  25. ^ Brister, Austin (6 January 2014). "Mineral Liens: Collecting Unpaid Debt for Oilfield Service Companies". OilandGasLawDigest.com. Retrieved 30 January 2014.
  26. ^ M. Simkovic (2009). "Secret Liens and the Financial Crisis of 2008". SSRN 1323190.
  27. ^ Bryan A. Garner (25 April 1999). Black's Law Dictionary, 7th Ed. West Group. pp. 936–. ISBN 978-0-314-22864-2.