For a long time now, various groups have recommended that forensic service providers become accredited and/or certified,1,2,3 with accreditation taking a front seat in the discussions.

While these terms have very specific meaning and purpose they are sometimes confused.  I have discussed certification elsewhere but, until now, I have not discussed accreditation, at length.  This post, hopefully, will resolve that and provide my view of these two things.

Each has clear benefits, but there are also some negative aspects.

Both accreditation and certification are aspects of a quality assurance (QA) system.

Ultimately, the goal of QA is to, quite simply, “ensure quality” which in part involves a reduction in error.4 Of course, errors arise in from many different causes, one of which is actual malfeasance on the part of the examiner.5 A truly corrupt individual can often achieve their goals by various means and that cannot be addressed by either certification or accreditation, though the latter may provide certain mechanisms that could help in the detection of malfeasance.

To begin the discussion let’s define each relevant term so there is no confusion about their nature or intended purpose. Accreditation is a process involving third-party recognition that the processes and procedures followed in a laboratory meet or exceed (i.e., they conform to) some specified standard. For example, there are various International standards that apply to forensic examinations including ISO/IEC 17025/17020 (or more recently, ISO 21043). A nice general introduction to this is found in ILAC G19:08/2014 Modules in a Forensic Science Process. The scope of that document reads, in part:

The guidance defines the purpose of the forensic science process and the series of steps from the time a forensic unit is notified of an incident until the presentation of findings together with a description of the activities that take place at each step.
The guidance does not specify which International Standard should apply to the work being conducted by the forensic unit. This is a matter for the conformity assessment body, in this circumstance this is the forensic unit, and the accreditation body concerned. Any testing conducted as part of scene of crime investigation shall be carried out according to documented procedures and ISO/IEC 17020 may cover these procedures provided that the relevant clauses of ISO/IEC 17025 are considered.

To become accredited a laboratory must conduct its business according to the rules laid out in the standard they choose to follow. 

This involves two steps:

  1. they must document how things are done in their laboratory (procedures and methods must be defined), and
  2. provide proof (in written form) that these procedures are, in fact, followed.

Point #1 requires a detailed method that is followed very closely6 when performing any “testing” function. Quality Control (QC) and Quality Assurance (QA), or together QA/QC, elements must be present and used without exception, in accordance with both the standard and laboratory policy. This applies to all aspects of laboratory operations: training, retraining, testing, review, audits, etc.

Point #2 requires  extensive QA/QC elements to “prove” that 1) methods have been followed (only approved/sanctioned/validated methods), 2) that tests were accurate/successful according to pre-determined criteria, and 3) that “failures” in equipment or procedures were detected and rectified.  Careful record keeping, audits and reviews are “necessary” to ensure and enforce conformity to the standard.

Please note that there is much more to the process of achieving (or maintaining) accreditation, but these are the key elements to me.  Some of these elements are excellent in my opinion.  In particular, and for example, those that relate to ‘accuracy of the results’, ‘validity of a method’, or ‘objectivity of the results’ are excellent since they relate to the results in any given case.

Certification has been discussed in detail elsewhere but, in brief, it focuses on the examiner, rather than the laboratory.  Like accreditation it involves third-party recognition that some standard has been attained (and maintained).  But the focus here is on the knowledge, skills, and abilities of a specific examiner. To achieve/maintain certification the examiner must possess certain pre-requisites, training/education, and demonstrated skills.  In that regard, there are two main elements:  1) initial screening and independent testing by a board of “peers”, and 2) ongoing re-evaluation by those “peers”.7

Ultimately, certification speaks to the abilities of a given examiner.  It does not, however, address the outcome of any specific case or application of a test.

Both of these, certification and accreditation, enhance the ‘objectivity’ of forensic processes through third-party review and oversight.  To some degree both address quality issues relating to the accuracy and reliability of results.  Neither of these are required to do Forensic Document Examination work.  To my knowledge, no courts have ruled directly that either is necessary or required to do this work.  At the same time, there has been recognition that they are both beneficial.

Let’s look at the benefits (pros) of each of these things.  Since neither has been deemed to be required by the Courts, it may seem there is little actual benefit to either.  However, in court it is always advantageous to have some ‘proof’ of competency and of proper application of appropriate methods.  It makes testimony much easier and the examiner’s testimony should have more impact as the trier will have a better idea of its value to them.

In terms of ‘certification’, it helps to show the client that an examiner is competent and up-to-date in their discipline and area of expertise.  This is particularly important whenever a method or procedure is subject to change, requires flexibility in its application, or involves a high degree of subjective assessment.  The latter is, of course, prevalent in FDE work.  As such, certification is a critical way to help a client/trier assess the qualification of an examiner (assuming the certifying body is, in fact, legitimate – see the FSAB site for more information).

In terms of ‘accreditation’, if we can assume that the ‘check-and-balances’ implemented actually relate to the work at hand, then it should provide some assurance, to both the examiner and the client, that the results are accurate and reliable.  This is achieved by showing that some quality assurance program exists, and that it was used routinely and in a given case.  The main argument would be that any ‘error’ that might have happened would be detected and corrected.

An often overlooked benefit of accreditation, at least in the USA, is access to public funding provided by the government. Unaccredited labs have limited, or no, access to various programs.

Now, let’s consider the negatives (cons), some of which are relatively trivial and some more significant.

Every function aimed at quality assurance/control requires resources and incurs some expense or cost.  Therefore, while an argument can be made that every possible QA procedure should be followed in every single instance, that is often an extreme position that cannot be achieved.

In terms of ‘accreditation’, the standard requires the formalization of every method being used as well as complete testing for validate the method.  Further, a complete QA system must be in place.  The latter requires dedicated personnel, multiple processes with extensive documentation that applies for every case.  These points are non-negotiable and, of course, they do have value.  But they come at a cost in terms of time and resources.  Costs that relate to both the initial development, and ongoing maintenance, of the system. 

Such systems also come with a high risk of a “big brother” attitude and approach wherein auditors and reviewers dictate what is, and is not, done in a given laboratory setting. This is particularly problematic for examiners who work alone or in institutions with few examiners. In fact, the NCFS noted that some laboratories will also, for various reasons, simply stop providing some services which results in their loss to the Justice system, or at least some change in service provision.

In terms of ‘certification’, there are costs and expenses for the professional development of individual examiners.  Relative to accreditation, these costs are fairly low both for initial and ongoing processes.  Overall, there are very few negatives precluding ‘certification’ of any qualified and competent examiner which is one of the main reasons why I believe every competent examiner should be professionally certified.

Of course, when it comes to forensic work in general and FDE in particular, the issue of potential error is critical. Furthermore, FDE work is necessarily highly subjective in nature, with neither the analysis or interpretation of findings being easily quantified.  Testing of proficiency is possible, but such testing has historically been of limited value in terms of real casework and error estimation.  What this means is that the competency of the individual examiner is paramount.

In the end, the best recommendation is to adopt both of these, at least to whatever degree it is possible. If only one can be attained, then certification is the best option.

Certification, quite simply, has obvious value for any forensic examiner, and the cost of obtaining and maintaining it is relatively low and within the reach of any examiner (or laboratory). Accreditation, on the other hand, has much higher cost to it — both initial and ongoing. Accreditation is also not the panacea that some people suggest. It undoubtedly has value, but that value is not as high as many people believe. For example, in general an accredited lab must have procedures in place to detect errors that might occur. But they function best at a higher ‘system’ level, not at the ‘examiner’ level.

There have been instances where completely unqualified examiners have worked in an accredited lab for years while producing flawed results. Eventually those issues were discovered, but such results would have been far less likely to occur in the first place had the examiners been properly certified.8

Accreditation, when coupled with certification, can be effective and meaningful. But, lacking certification of examiners, an accredited lab cannot guarantee high-quality work.


  1. National Research Council. Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2009. doi:10.17226/12589.
  2. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Report to the president Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods, Washington DC, 2016, e_report_final.pdf.
  3. House of Lords , Science and Technology Select Committee. Forensic Science and the Criminal Justice System: A Blueprint for Change, 2019.
  4. One of the terms almost always ignored is quality itself. In this context, a quality result is one that is both accurate and reliable to some acceptable, pre-determined level.
  5. This is a particular issue of concern, but, while troubling, it is extremely rare.
  6. Or, rather, as closely as the method requires.
  7. The value in having a competent examiner should be obvious.
  8. Interestingly, some of these instances were found during accreditation audits. More interesting, how many others are out there still to be discovered?

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