What is Forensic Document Examination? Forensic Document Examination (aka FDE, aka Questioned Document Examination) is the forensic science discipline that deals with documents relevant to some legal dispute. A forensic document examiner is someone trained to address questions about a suspect (questioned/disputed) document using a wide variety of scientific processes and methods.
The scope of work is very broad mainly because examiners have a different definition for ‘document’ than the one that most people know and use. For FDEs, a ‘document’ is any material bearing marks, signs or symbols, whether visible, partially visible or invisible, intended to convey a message or meaning to someone. This obviously encompasses the regular definition of a document — a piece of paper with handwriting or printing on it. But it extends that basic idea to include many things that people would not think of as documents. Consider, for example, a price label, a wall with graffiti on it, or writing scratched into wood. All of those are documents that might be contested in a court of law.
The work a document examiner does is often broken into two broad sub-categories within the overall scope. The most common examination type for most examiners relates to the potential authorship of writing. The other encompasses all other type of questions relating to documents; that is, non-handwriting issues. I personally split the latter area into two further sub-groups; one that focuses on questions relating to how a document was produced, and a second that deals with occurrences to a document before, during or after its production.
In some parts of the world, examiners are trained exclusively in one main sub-area or the other and, hence, refer to themselves as “handwriting experts” or “document experts”, as appropriate. In many countries (eg. all of North America, Australia, the UK, etc), examiners are normally trained in all aspects of the work though there are some examiners, primarily working in the private domain, that do only one type or the other, or who have a specific focus such as ink analysis.
There are many good resources for more information about Forensic Document Examination including the following:
- American Society of Questioned Document Examiners
- American Board of Forensic Document Examiners
- Scientific Working Group for Forensic Document Examination
- US National Institute of Justice QD information page
- US NIST OSAC Subcommittee on Questioned Documents
- European Network of Forensic Science Institutes (Handwriting and Documents are two of the working groups)
- American Board of Forensic Document Examiners — certifying body for FDEs