What is certification? In my opinion, professional certification is a designation that indicates the holder of the certification has appropriate and adequate qualifications to do some particular, generally well-defined, job or task. As an example I am a forensic document examiner and I have received professional certification from the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc.
An internet search for ‘certification’ produces a huge list of possibilities, with more such programs being developed all the time as people become attuned to issues of quality and competency. Indeed, almost every profession has some type of certification and a few have several (consider all of the ‘certifications’ in the computing industry). Most, if not all, certification programs are aimed at improving the quality in a given profession by setting minimum standards for the job. The basic idea is that someone meeting or exceeding those standards will produce quality output on the job. Certification programs are generally created or are administered by a professional society, a college or university, or some private body set up expressly for that purpose.
Forensic Document Examination is no exception so it may be worthwhile discussing certification options as well as the pros and cons that I see for those options.
In my opinion the main benefit of any certification program is that it provides an independent, third-party review and assessment of the applicant’s credentials, training, experience, skills and ability. Since that assessment is done by persons with in-depth knowledge of a specialized domain, it can be very helpful when someone else, lacking such knowledge, needs to evaluate anyone presenting themselves as a qualified and competent person. Often the latter person is deciding whether or not to use and trust the work of the person so-certified.
I am certainly not the only person who feels this way. The 2009 National Academy of Science’s report Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward included many references to certification in its recommendations. Here are a couple of excerpts from recommendation #7 of the report:
Laboratory accreditation and individual certification of forensic science professionals should be mandatory, and all forensic science professionals should have access to a certification process.… NAS report, page 25
No person (public or private) should be allowed to practice in a forensic science discipline or testify as a forensic science professional without certification. Certification requirements should include, at a minimum, written examinations, supervised practice, proficiency testing, continuing education, recertification procedures, adherence to a code of ethics, and effective disciplinary procedures.… NAS report, page 25
While I may not agree with every comment or recommendation in the NAS report it is clear that the authors felt there was both a need for and benefit to having good certification programs for all forensic examiners.
What exactly does certification entail?
As one certifying body describes it “certification is based upon the candidate’s personal and professional education, training, experience, and achievement, as well as on the results of a formal examination process.”1 In other words, a candidate applies for certification from some third-party certifying body and undergoes review of their credentials as well as formal testing of their ability. If they are successful, the candidate is ‘certified’ by the third-party as being a qualified and competent person.
In brief, some of the positive aspects of certification include:
- independent, third-party review of the examiner’s qualifications,
- limited formal testing of the applicant’s skill and abilities,
- access to a professional review process with possibilities of censure and discipline,
- impetus to perform ongoing professional development, and
- a relatively low cost to participate.
From a potential client’s point-of-view, certification provides some assurance that the examiner can do what they claim to do — at least according to the standard applied by the certifying body.
As a rule, certification is valid for a specified period of time after which the certification must be renewed. Re-certification generally requires documented evidence of continued and ongoing professional development and learning. That approach helps to ensure that the certified person has maintained their currency in their field of expertise.
Certification isn’t a perfect thing. First of all, it is voluntary. Certification of forensic specialists is not a licensing process, at least not in Canada or the USA. Forensic Document Examination, like most forensic science disciplines, is not controlled through either licensure or even mandatory certification. Hence, we have only voluntary professional certification.
Second, and arguably more important, any certification is only as good as the certifying body itself. Quite simply, unless a certifying body is legit and competent any ‘certification’ it provides will be completely useless. Concern about the quality of the certifying body is important both to examiners considering certification as a credential, and to persons looking to assess examiners possessing some certification.
Examiners must first decide whether it is in their interests to become certified. If they decide they want to become certified then they must determine which certification is valid and most beneficial to them. Which one is actually good and worth the time, trouble and expense to pursue? Similarly, from the public’s point-of-view, it is very important to know which certifications are actually meaningful. If an examiner has been certified by group ‘XYZ’ what does it mean? The truth is that some certifications are literally junk documents having no value or meaning whatsoever. I won’t dwell on the details since it would lead to a very long post. Instead I invite you to read a number of related articles.
First there is an editorial piece in Fraud Magazine entitled The similarities end with the initials which with a catchy summary, “The PBS program, “Frontline,” recently ran a scathing exposé on ACFEI, the American College of Forensic Examiners International, essentially calling it a “credentialing mill.”” (read more here). Alternatively, you can watch the original PBS show referenced in that article. It was an episode called The Real CSI and, though a bit lop-sided in its approach to the issue, it makes for very interesting viewing (watch it here). You may also enjoy Leah Bartos’ exposé done for Propublica entitled “No Forensic Background? No Problem”.
EDIT: Please consider also a related Washington Post article from 2017 written after the death of Robert O’Block of ACFEI infamy.
The bottom line is that, before accepting any examiner’s claim of competency based upon their certification, it is important to assess the certifying body and the certification process it uses when evaluating applicants.
How can someone assess the quality of a certification program?
One option is to consult the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board, Inc. (or FSAB), a body set up in 2000 that can help the public and examiners in this task. The FSAB exists solely to accredit groups or businesses that provide certification services relating to the forensic disciplines.
The goal of this program is to establish a mechanism whereby the forensic community can assess, recognize and monitor organizations or professional boards that certify individual forensic scientists or other forensic specialists. This program has been established with the support and grant assistance of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).… from the FSAB homepage
In my opinion the FSAB serves a valuable purpose because it helps to ensure the policies and procedures used by a certifying body have met or exceed some basic requirements (available on the FSAB website). The FSAB set its own standards for certifying bodies so that they conform to ISO and other international standards.2
So, when it comes to certification programs for forensic science disciplines, it is a very good idea to check first to see if the issuing body has been accredited with FSAB. If it has not, there is no assurance the ‘certification’ has any value whatsoever.
In particular, when it comes to FDE work there are only two certifying bodies presently accredited by FSAB; the ABFDE and the BFDE. For what its worth, the ABFDE predates the creation of FSAB having begun operations in 1977 and its certification process has changed over the years as a result. The present policies and procedures are all in accordance with FSAB requirements.
As noted earlier, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have been certified as a Forensic Document Examiner by the ABFDE. That does not mean, however, that I speak for the ABFDE in any manner whatsoever. I do not.3
I chose the ABFDE for many reasons, but primarily because it is the only certifying body endorsed by the CSFS, the ASQDE, and other similar institutions and agencies. In addition, to my knowledge it is the only certifying body for FDEs recognized by federal, provincial and state forensic laboratories in Canada and the USA. That does not mean the organization is only for examiners working in those labs; in fact, most of those certified by the ABFDE work as private examiners.
The ABFDE is a non-profit incorporated in the District of Columbia. It was formed to meet the need for professional oversight and in the hope of improving the overall quality of individuals presenting themselves to the public and courts as being qualified and competent forensic document examiners. Put simply, the objectives of the Board are:
to establish, maintain and enhance standards of qualification for those who practice forensic document examination, and to certify applicants who comply with ABFDE requirements for this expertise. In doing so, the Board aims to safeguard the public interest by ensuring that anyone who claims to be a specialist in forensic document examination does, in fact, possess the necessary skills and qualifications.… from the ABFDE homepage
The recognition received by the ABFDE from various professional societies and bodies in the US and Canada is quite unique. No other certifying body has been acknowledged in this manner. As they put it (my emphases added),
The ABFDE is sponsored by the Canadian Society of Forensic Science, the American Society of Questioned Document Examiners, the Southwestern Association of Forensic Document Examiners, and the Southeastern Association of Forensic Document Examiners, and also is recognized by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the International Association for Identification, the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Forensic Scientists. The ABFDE is the only certifying body that can claim such sponsorship and recognition.… from the ABFDE homepage
So what are the requirements to become certified by the ABFDE? These are laid out on their website and include general qualifications, educational qualifications and professional experience qualifications. In general, “applicants must be persons of good moral character, high integrity, and good repute, and must possess high ethical and professional standing.” In addition, certification is presently limited to “permanent residents of the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand” although others may apply for consideration by the Board of Directors.
The next consideration is education and “applicants must possess at least an earned baccalaureate degree from an appointed academic institution or from an institution or higher education program whose degrees would be considered the equivalent of an earned baccalaureate degree.”
The FDE-specific requirements fall under professional experience. That begins with basic training so “applicants are required to complete and document a full-time training period of at least two years in duration, in a forensic laboratory recognized by the ABFDE.” The term ‘recognized’ applies to any laboratory, public or private, with a training program that meets the basic requirements described in the SWGDOC (Standard for Minimum Training Requirements for Forensic Document Examiners).
The key elements of such a training program include it being a full-time program at least 24 months in duration (but not exceeding 4 years) and conducted under the supervision of a principal trainer who is a fully trained with at least five years of full-time experience after their own training. The training must cover all the topics outlined in the ABFDE Study Guide. Such training programs are generally considered to be ‘apprenticeship’ training including both theoretical and practical components.
In order to assess the moral character of an applicant they must submit three references who can attest to their qualifications for certification as well as their ethical character. Ideally these would be forensic document examiners certified by the ABFDE but other persons may be used with those persons being evaluated on an individual basis.
It is important that any applicant be actively engaged in the practice of forensic document examination when they apply for certification. To ensure this is the case, every applicant must provide a record of appropriate professional activity in forensic document examination.
All the above elements are assessed before the applicant can move on to the testing phase of the certification process. The testing phase must be completed within 2½ years and in that phase applicants are required to successfully complete written, practical, and oral examinations provided to them by the Board. The testing covers a range of the problems encountered in document examination.
In my opinion, this is the most critical and important aspect of the certification process. It is only through actual testing of a professed skill that competency can be assessed.
The ABFDE points out the need to look carefully at any examiner’s certification claims.
Anyone selecting an FDE should beware of sound-alike organizations that claim to have their own certification. Job announcements from federal and state laboratories that hire FDEs consistently include certification by ABFDE or eligibility to be certified by ABFDE as a required or desired qualification. No recent job announcement has acknowledged another certifying board for FDEs.… from the ABFDE FAQs page
For anyone interested in certification of forensic document examiners, the ABFDE website has extensive information relating to their organization and its processes and procedures. Someone certified by the ABFDE is considered a “Diplomate” by the Board and may refer to themselves in that manner. They may also use letters like D-ABFDE or ABFDE-D after their name.
Before leaving the ABFDE I should comment on a couple of common, but completely inaccurate, claims sometimes made about the organization.
The first is the idea that some of today’s diplomates were ‘grand-fathered’ into the program, meaning they did not have to go through the complete assessment and testing procedure. It is true that the original ABFDE certification program did not meet the standards set by FSAB and that, for a short period of time, some diplomates were given time to assess whether or not they wanted to stay with the ABFDE when the new program came fully into effect. That grace period was a form of ‘grand-fathering’ but it was time-limited and the practise ceased completely years ago. All of the present Diplomates, both recent ones and those who were originally certified before the creation of FSAB, having been fully assessed and tested before certification, or re-certification, was granted to them by the Board. In other words, they have fulfilled all requirements in accordance with the present ABFDE and FSAB standards. Nobody has been ‘grandfathered’ in the program.
Another inaccurate claim is that the Board only certifies government examiners or those persons who work in public laboratories. The list of present diplomates is available on the ABFDE website. Of the 110 persons on that list as of Dec 30, 2014, sixty-seven indicate that they accept private cases. There will be a some examiners in that group who accept private cases while also working in a public lab. However, most private examiners do not work in a public lab which indicates that this claim is quite ludicrous. The bottom line is that anyone meeting the pre-requisites may apply for certification. ABFDE certification is a valid option for anyone with the proper qualifications, meeting the requirements, and who successfully completes the testing process.
I have no personal knowledge about the BFDE but they do have a fair amount of information on their website. Their certification was not available when I decided to pursue the matter. More importantly, since I have worked exclusively in Federal labs in the Canadian government through my career, such certification has no real value to me personally as it has not been recognized in those lab systems. Nonetheless, the BFDE certification process has been accredited with the FSAB and their policies and procedures fulfill all FSAB criteria.
Other than the ABFDE and BFDE there are no certification bodies for forensic document examiners accredited with the FSAB.
On the international side of things, I know of very few programs (but there may well be some of which I have no knowledge). The main one is the Netherlands Register of Court Experts (Nederlands Register Gerechtelijk Deskundigen, or NRGD) which is a Dutch initiative consisting primarily of a formal registry for experts.
As their website explains it is the:
definitive register of court experts. It has a legal basis, it is independent and transparent. The register guarantees and promotes the consistent quality of the contribution made by court experts to the legal process.… from the NRGD homepage
Under the “Dutch Experts in Criminal Cases Act”, effective January 2010, standards were imposed relating to the quality, reliability and competence of experts. To this end, they created the NRGD complete with its own funding and independence.
Strictly speaking, the process is not one of certification. However, to become a registered expert, the applicant must apply and provide evidence of their training, experience and other credentials. The applicant’s competencies are evaluated by an NRGD Advisory Committee for Assessment which gives its recommendation to the Court Experts Board, an independent body. That Board decides upon the application for admission to the register. The main test is an oral examination but the applicant must also provide three examples of cases they have done recently.
There is no cost to register but the process is lengthy and complicated. Furthermore, it doesn’t apply to experts working outside of the Netherlands, but foreign experts may also register. Details can be found on the NRGD website.
Limits of Certification
Certification can be very helpful when assessing any examiner’s claims of competency. However, as noted earlier, it isn’t a perfect system. Aside from the critical issue of the legitimacy of the certifying body mentioned above I believe there are two areas where changes could be made to greatly improve the value of certification.
These are 1) limited practical testing and 2) limited court recognition/value.
I am a definite advocate for testing for the purpose of competency testing and assessment. Testing is very important as the results speak to the examiner’s competency and abilities, albeit not always directly or completely (depending upon the design of each test). How else can anyone show they have learned something, if not through some type of testing? It is safe to say that every examiner undergoes testing at some point in time. For one thing, testing is always part of any basic training. Beyond that, every bonafide certification process must also include a testing element. However, while the initial testing to become certified is reasonably good, testing necessary for re-certification is limited or non-existent. For example, the BFDE states “Proficiency testing is required twice within the five year period, through an approved provider” for re-certification, while the ABFDE does not formally require ongoing testing to be re-certified. Rather, they just encourage the practise by awarding credits towards recertification for those who do testing.
I have heard a couple of arguments in support of ongoing testing being optional. First, there aren’t very many options for such testing. Second, testing costs money which might put it out of reach for some people. Those are both fair enough points, but I tend to see this as something of a missed opportunity.
Individual examiners can benefit greatly from ongoing testing because it helps ensure they can do what they claim, it provides an opportunity for corrective measures (if any issues should be found), it also permits ‘calibration’ of the examiner’s personal abilities vs others in the field, and it provides some limited measure of their skill for those desiring an objective measure of it — a point that should be of interest to any client or trier-of-fact considering the qualifications of a particular examiner.
I am not trying to suggest that examiners do not undergo testing at all. In my experience, most qualified examiners are being regularly tested whether it’s required for certification or not. This is often done voluntarily, or in relation to some formal QA system requirement. This happens on a routine and regular basis for many examiners. Such behaviour is certainly to be commended as it is exactly in line with the approach I support; however, I think things would be even better if it were required by the certifying body as part of the ongoing re-certification process.
The value of ABFDE certification has been recognized in some US courts. For example, see American General Life and Accident Insurance Co. v. Ward, an insurance-related case from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division. In that case, the judge granted plaintiff’s motion to strike the testimony of the defendants’ expert witness saying “Although he holds himself out as a “qualified” questioned document examiner, the Court finds it significant that [he] is not accredited by the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners (the “ABFDE”). The ABFDE is the “only recognized organization for accrediting forensic document examiners.” Wolf v. Ramsey, 253 F.Supp.2d 1323, 1342 (N.D.Ga.2003). Courts have highlighted ABFDE certification and membership as an important factor in determining a document examiner’s qualifications. Id. See also Dracz v. Am. Gen. Life Ins. Co., 426 F.Supp.2d 1373, 1379, n. 16 (M.D.Ga.2006)(noting the importance of ABFDE certification and membership).” That ruling is pretty clear.4
I could find no similar Canadian rulings even though the testimony of ABFDE-certified examiners has been routinely admitted in our courts. This lack of recognition of the value of certification by Canadian courts is troubling because it implies the courts do not see much value in certification. Or perhaps they do and have simply never noted it in their final rulings. Granted, certification alone cannot ensure competency, nor does its lack equate to incompetency. But it is an important indicator — basically, professional certification once achieved and maintained is a good indicator that the holder of the certification has appropriate and adequate qualifications for the job. At the same time the lack of certification suggests, as a minimum, that the person may be lacking some aspect of proper qualification. At the very least, the lack of certification should prompt a challenge of the person’s qualifications to ensure they are, in fact, adequate.
“Expert witnesses” are unusual in our court system in that they are permitted to give opinion evidence in court. Other witnesses are not permitted to do this. It has been noted that expert evidence can be very influential in a court of law. As a result, it makes sense that only truly qualified persons should be granted this status. In our justice system it is the responsibility of the trial judge to consider whether evidence should be admitted. For various reasons the evaluation of the qualifications of any purported ‘expert’ is not an easy task. In part, this is due to the fact that the domain of the expert is likely to be relatively unknown to the judge.5
Indeed, given the highly technical nature of most forensic disciplines, it seems only reasonable to me that a full evaluation of the qualifications of a purported ‘expert’ would best be done by others in that field who have relevant technical knowledge and who have no vested interest in the matter at hand. Such ‘external’ oversight would be difficult to achieve on a case-by-case basis. The only practical way it might be done would be through a pre-existing registry system. The Dutch NRGD is a good example, but Canada (like the USA) has no such registry. For a number of reasons it is unlikely there ever will be one. And, lacking such a registry, the best option is certification.
Our justice system is pretty good overall, but, sadly, it is very rare for a judge to refuse to hear evidence from a purported expert who lacks proper and valid professional certification. Rather than refusing to admit such evidence courts often opt to hear the evidence first, then consider the lack of certification only when assessing the weight to be given the evidence (either by the judge or a jury). Indeed, all too often poorly or un-qualified persons have been allowed to testify at least in part because certification (or rather the lack of it) was not considered important enough. As noted earlier, being certified certainly does not mean that the person should automatically be accepted as an expert, and being uncertified does not mean they should automatically be rejected. Certification is, after all, only one part of the puzzle, but it should be seen as a very important part. In my opinion, when someone lacks certification from one of the FSAB-approved bodies, it should raise a large red flag leading immediately to the question ‘why not?’ There may be valid reasons for this choice by the examiner, but all too often it is a matter of the person actually being unqualified. As a result, I personally believe that much more weight should be given to certification than is presently the case in most courts.
Each trial judge must decide for themselves how to proceed when assessing a potential expert and, of course, they may do it however they like. It would be ideal if the courts showed they understand the value and meaning of professional certification either by saying so directly, or by limiting the testimony of uncertified/unqualified persons. Either of these actions, if done on a regular basis, would have positive results.
From a practical perspective in a specific case, the court would not have to deal with evidence coming from supposedly “expert” evidence tendered by a non-expert witness. The tendency of judges to listen to such evidence and then to decide whether or not to give it any weight at all has a cost. Expert testimony is time-consuming and, hence, expensive due to the very high cost of court time. Why waste that time and money on evidence produced, on the face of it, by someone who has never bothered to have their qualifications professionally vetted and reviewed? Perhaps more important than the cost is the potential to distort a trial through the introduction of evidence that should not be in the mix at all. Such evidence will have an effect on the outcome, particularly in jury trials, no matter how much direction is given telling jurists to ‘ignore’ or to limit the value of testimony from a poorly qualified ‘expert’. Once information is in the mix it cannot be removed and its end effect is hard to determine.
Another positive result would be that qualified examiners debating whether or not to become certified will finally have clear direction on the matter. The opinion of any court is very important in this regard. While I personally think those individuals should voluntarily opt for certification anyway, many have not yet done so. A not-so-gentle ‘push’ would go a long way in convincing them that there is good value in being certified.
In the end, by failing to assign proper value to certification I believe the courts are missing an opportunity both in the specific case and in the general interests of the justice system at large.
- ABFDE website, retrieved 2014.Dec.23
- “The [FSAB] standards are based on those already applied by other nationally recognized accreditation programs and where they exist, international standards, but have been modified in recognition of the unique and diverse nature of the different forensic specialty organizations”, retrieved from the FSAB website on 2014.Dec.23
- To my knowledge, only the President can do that. Diplomates, like myself, are not involved in the activities or functions of the ABFDE unless they are also elected to the Board of Directors. To present accurate information I’ve tried to use only information taken directly from the ABFDE website.
- The referenced ruling Wolf v. Ramsey can be found here.
- This derives from the ‘necessity’ requirement which says expert opinion must be based upon “knowledge or information which lies ‘beyond the ken’ of the average lay person” (see Kelliher (Village of) v. Smith, ( S.C. R. 672). While the judge is not an average lay person in many respects (they are clearly ‘expert’ in the legal domain), they generally are lay persons when it comes to the specialized knowledge possessed by other experts. In general, admissibility of forensic evidence in Canadian courts is assessed in terms of ‘relevance’, ‘necessity’ and ‘reliability’ (as per R. v. Mohan, ).