What is “forensic document examination”?

The short answer is that Forensic Document Examination, aka questioned document examination (or FDE/QDE), is the forensic science that deals with documents in dispute or in question.  There are, of course, many different types of documents and many different aspects of a document that might be in question.

As the AAFS website describes it,

Questioned document examination, also referred to as forensic document examination, is the branch of forensic science best known for the determination of authorship of signatures and handwriting but, in fact, involves much more comprehensive analyses of writing instruments, writing mediums, and office machine products.

Most of the time questioned documents are relevant to some dispute between parties, and very often that dispute will be legal in nature.

At other times, sometimes a particular aspect of a document is ‘in question’. For example, in genealogical research or when dealing with other ‘historical’ documents, the issue is whether markings can be made more visible, or determining how a document was constructed or changed.   You can learn more about this on my About FDE page.

Can you determine personality from handwriting?

Can you determine personality from handwriting?

The short answer is ‘no’.

It is important to understand that this type of claim, being able to assess personality from a person’s writing, falls completely outside the scope of forensic document examination. In North America, someone who claims to be able to determine personality traits based upon handwriting is generally called a ‘graphologist’, and their field is called ‘graphology’. 

The distinction maybe confusing for those who might interpret the word ‘graphologist’ in the broader sense of ‘someone who studies handwriting’; however, that is not how the term is used in the modern forensic science domain. In general, the broader community of Forensic Document Examiners do not consider themselves to be graphologists because they examine handwriting solely to assess questions relating to authorship (as well as performing analyses relating to other aspects of document production). They are trained to do such tasks based upon the study of habitual motor patterns, biomechanics, and neuro-physiology; all aspects of handwriting that have little or nothing to do with the ‘personality traits’ of the writer. At the same time, graphologists do not generally receive any training that would qualify them to do authorship assessments.

Since ‘graphology’ is not my area of expertise I won’t any comment further on the validity of any claims regarding handwriting and personality assessment. Instead, I recommend a couple of independent resources: first, a BC Civil Liberties’ article, The use of graphology as a tool for employee hiring and evaluation and, second, Quackwatch’s How Graphology Fools People article, both of which provide a good analysis.  Draw your own conclusions.

So, as I indicated at the start of this answer, this is a clear and definite “no — I cannot determine personality from handwriting”.

What is the ASQDE?

The American Society of Questioned Document Examiners (ASQDE) is a professional society established in 1913 making it the oldest organization in the world dedicated to the profession of forensic document examination, with a legitimate claim to also being the largest such organization. 

The objectives for the Society were to “foster education, sponsor scientific research, establish standards, exchange experiences, and provide instruction in the field of questioned document examination, and to promote justice in matters that involve questions about documents.”1 One of the most valuable activities for the Society is their annual scientific meeting held in various locations. 

For more info, please visit www.asqde.org.

Why is certification important in forensic document examination?

Certification is important primarily because it gives a client some assurance about the abilities and competencies of the examiner.  That’s very important when choosing a forensic document examiner.

By ‘client’ I mean both the individual hiring the FDE, usually a lawyer or private citizen, and the Court that will eventually rule on the matter.

Does the lack of certification mean an examiner is not competent? Not necessarily. Certification is voluntary and not all examiners feel it is needed or even important.  However, the lack of professional certification means that you, the client, will have to determine whether or not the examiner is competent and qualified using some other means.

This topic discussed at some length in a post you can find here.

What is the ABFDE?

The American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, Inc. (ABFDE) is a body established in 1977 to do two main things:

  • “establish, maintain and enhance standards of qualification for those who practice forensic document examination”
  • “certify applicants who comply with ABFDE requirements for this expertise”

The goal of the ABFDE is simple: “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.”

I have written more about the ABFDE here, or please visit the ABFDE Website at www.abfde.org

What is the FSAB?

The Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board, or FSAB, is a body established in 2000 to help ensure the quality of credentialing bodies (i.e., organizations that professionally certify examiners) with support and funding from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). 

The program “…is intended 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 (conformity assessment bodies, CABs).”  A list of the accredited certifying bodies (CABs) can be found here.