Different strokes

Expert evidence is a popular topic. The legal press is littered with references to codes of practice, expert's qualifications, academies and registers and sometimes it is difficult to discern who is properly qualified, experienced, independent, competent and reasonably priced.

In some fields where there are few formal qualifications, the proliferation of bodies of apparently qualified experts has only served to confuse.

The Academy of Experts, is one such example.

This organisation was set up with the best of motives; but maybe its highly publicised vetting procedures should include review by an expert's peers. Is it acceptable that an accountant vets an architect?

One field which is very muddled is forensic document examination; there are a small number of properly trained and qualified practitioners in this field. However, other less qualified individuals are offering advice in this area. Graphologists often refer to themselves as handwriting experts. How does the lawyer tell the difference?

The forensic document examiner provides advice on all aspects of documents including the authenticity of signatures, the identification of individuals through their handwriting, the history and origin of documents, their composition and make-up. They are trained scientists using scientific methods, equipment and objective processes. This science is well-accepted in UK and international courts.

A graphologist, however, divines personality traits through the study of handwriting.

These two areas are completely separate. Expertise as a graphologist does not qualify an individual as a forensic document examiner and vice versa.

Bona fide forensic document examiners can be identified by their scientific qualifications and experience in leading forensic science laboratories.

Graphologists focus more on attributes such as acute observation, instinct, lateral thinking and concise, unambiguous language. These competencies should appear on all professionals' job descriptions, including a lawyer's, but it doesn't qualify anybody as a forensic document examiner.

The following encompass the forensic document examiner's area of expertise:

Signatures

Did person X sign this document or not? This is the most common yet most testing area of forensic document examination. Signatures are specialised pieces of handwriting varying from a very simple name made in everyday writing to complex and intricate designs.

Because they contain only a small amount of material all signatures are vulnerable to the skilled forger. And to complicate matters, peoples' signatures vary naturally and change gradually over the years.

Handwriting

Handwriting on a document can identify the actual individual who wrote that document. Only DNA profiling and fingerprints are as effective in unequivocally identifying an individual.

The size, shape and internal proportions of each character are studied, the number and order of strokes, line direction and crossings. Then the relative proportions of different letters and the space between words. The expert is then able to judge how similar or different handwritings are. The judgement is not a simple one. All handwriting is variable and the expert must decide whether this is due to natural variation or perhaps copying, disguise, the effects of illness, age, alcohol or drugs.

Typewritings, printing and inks

The typewriting, printing, inks and paper can all be analysed scientifically to give clues about the origin and history of a document.

It may be important to demonstrate that written entries on a document have been added or deleted. Specially developed equipment is used to distinguish inks which appear similar.

Latent marks

During the course of its history, marks or impressions may be made accidentally on a document. Sometimes detectable using the famous electro-static technique (ESDA), evidence from such traces can pinpoint when and where a document was produced.

Dating

This is difficult. One cannot determine the age of ink by any chemical analysis. Sometimes, though, the paper of a document may be identified and dated by its watermark.

In a recent case it was possible to identify that certain typewritten notes were out of sequence in a company file. The typeface and paper of the questioned documents matched only those which appeared in the later years and not of the earlier years when they were purported to have been produced.

Modern technology

Transferring a genuine signature to a fraudulent document by producing a photocopy montage and claiming that the original has been lost is a common ploy.

More recently, computer generated forgeries have appeared using images of signatures and handwriting electronically scanned in from genuine documents.

These are generally more difficult to deal with since the images can be manipulated to make them appear slightly different from the original handwritings.

Laboratory conditions

Forensic document examination is done in a properly equipped laboratory, not in a solicitor's office, a police station or courthouse. Prosecution scientists working in the major forensic science laboratories do not carry out examinations other than in their own laboratories. Nor do reputable independent experts.

So in a questioned document case, the wise lawyer will seek out a proper expert in the field – a fully equipped, qualified, experienced forensic document examiner.