Is my Examiner Qualified?

Of all the questions that can be asked about a Forensic Document Examiner, the issue of whether or not they are qualified is undoubtedly the most important of all. I have written about it before so you may wish to review the following:

What is hot-tubbing?

Hot tub without people, with water churning.

Hot-tubbing, in this context, is not what the phrase may first bring to mind.

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Where multiple examiners are involved in a case reports will be issued by each person and sometimes those reports will conflict. One way such conflicts can be resolved is commonly called hot-tubbing.

In brief, hot-tubbing is a Court-ordered discussion/debate involving two or more experts, aimed at sorting out critical issues before the forensic evidence is presented to the Court.12 As the Science Manual for Canadian Judges states:

Hot-tubbing originates from Australia, but has since been introduced to countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, the United States, England and Canada. In Canada, the Federal Court Rules, SOR/98-106, were amended in 2010 to permit hot-tubbing of experts at pre-trial and at trial (see sections 52.6, 282.1 and 282.2 of the Federal Court Rules below).

Science Manual for Canadian Judges, page 160.

Why does your service cost so much?

An internet search will produce a long list of people and agencies offering FDE services, often at remarkably low cost; much lower than my cost or that of any other reputable and qualified examiner. You should not be surprised by that — after all, there are no controls over who can offer their services to the public as I’ve discussed in another post you can find here.

Cutting corners is rarely a good approach when investing hard-earned money. Forensic document examination is one service where the client definitely should expect to get what they pay for. As the saying goes, “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, just wait until you hire an amateur!” 

As a parallel, would you trust your case to a sketchy lawyer? Or go with the lowest bid when quality is what matters most?  Perhaps so, in which case I can only say please be careful because you may be in for a rude surprise when the time comes to present such evidence in a court setting.

It is critical that you, like the courts, should always vet the credentials and practices of anyone offering this type of service. This is particularly true for anyone offering those services at what appears to be a ‘cut rate’.

A competent professional document examiner will have years of education, training, and experience. They will maintain their skills and currency through ongoing professional development. They will apply appropriate methods and techniques and use only well-maintained equipment. They will document their work and ensure that appropriate quality assurance measures are followed.  All these factors come at a cost; the cost of doing business the right way.

To put things bluntly, true forensic expertise does not come cheap. It is definitely not a service where doing things ‘on the cheap’ makes sense.

So, why does my service cost so much? Quite simply, it is because I try to do things the right way and take every precaution to ensure that will be the case. If you opt to go with a cheaper option, I wish you well.  However… I will also reiterate the Roman warning: 

“Caveat Emptor”

—Let the buyer beware—

Are there any licensing requirements for a Forensic Document Examiner?

No, there are no licensing requirements for Forensic Document Examiners in the majority of jurisdictions in the United States or Canada, or in most other parts of the world.  Some sort of licensing would have tremendous benefit by providing a degree of regulatory oversight. However, like other forensic disciplines, there is nothing at present for Forensic Document Examination work.

Therefore, please do not assume that anyone offering their services is truly qualified and competent. Check credentials carefully. To that end, look closely at any professional certification held by the examiner. Certification speaks to the competencies and capabilities of the examiner. In addition, review the examiner’s curriculum vitae (resume) carefully and always ask questions about anything in it.

Related blog post:  Professional Certification

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.

What is the “logical approach” to evidence evaluation?

The logical approach to evidence evaluation is an assessment process that focuses on the evidence, rather than directly addressing any propositions that might ‘explain’ that evidence. In other words, the examiner uses their expert knowledge and ability to determine the likelihood of the evidence (under competing hypotheses or propositions). Likelihood in this context means the conditional probability of the evidence given the hypotheses of interest. It is a system of logical reasoning.

I’ve posted on this topic a few times. Be sure to read my “Introduction to the Logical Approach to Evidence Evaluation”, as well as “Propositions — key to the evaluation process” and “When is a ‘Bayesian’ not a ‘Bayesian’?” This approach to evidence evaluation is also explained in the ENFSI Guideline for Evaluative Reporting.

Can you work with photocopied or faxed documents?

Yes, a forensic document examiner can work with a photocopied document, facsimile output, or other types of reproduction such as photographs.1 There are a couple of different situations where this might be a consideration.

First, some aspect of the reproduction itself may be in question. For example, the issue at hand may pertain to the manner of production, origin or source of a copy:

  • is the document a copy of a particular original document?
  • was the document (i.e., copy) produced on a particular machine?
  • was the document (i.e., copy) produced on or about a specific purported date?
  • what type of device was used to produce the document (i.e., reproduction)?
  • has the document (i.e., copy) been altered, relative to the source document?
  • is this document an original or a reproduction? (yes, this can be an issue)

In these types of situations the document itself is the focus of the examination or comparison. Hence, the fact it is a reproduction should not limit the examination or be a concern.

Second, the issue may involve a comparison between questioned and known/exemplar samples to assess potential source. In this situation, original documents are always better, if they are available.

There will be times when a reproduction is the only copy available. In those instances a meaningful examination may still be possible; however, the reproduced nature of the item may place some limitation on the examination. The critical issue is the quality of reproduction and poor quality copies can be a significant limiting factor. Poor quality reproductions simply do not display all of the features the examiner must assess. That applies whether the issue relates to handwriting (e.g., questions about authorship) or machine printing (e.g., questions about source).

In particular, and as noted above, if the issue relates to authorship of handwriting or a signature, then it is always best to have the original document, rather than any reproduction.2

Another factor that arises with a reproduction is the possibility that some element appearing in the document (e.g., writing or a signature) may have been ‘inserted’ into a document via a “cut-and-paste” process, either through electronic/digital or manual means. Such activities can be difficult to detect or assess when working with a copy.

In summary, while a reproduction may place limits on certain types of examination it does not preclude an evaluation and assessment in every situation.  Always discuss the matter with the examiner.

Do you only examine signatures and handwriting?

No. The examination of signatures and handwriting, to evaluate issues pertaining to authorship, is an important part of the work of a Forensic Document Examiner (FDE), but it is only part of that work. Most examiners can and will also address questions pertaining to how a document was produced, or things that may have happened to a document in the course of its existence.1

The former entail examinations relating to methods of production such as typewriting, computer-generated documents, rubber stamps, inks, pens, paper, photocopies, staplers, faxes, graphic arts, and commercial printing presses. The latter involve examinations relating to alterations, obliterations, erasures, indented impressions, among other things. 

Please note that this list is not exhaustive. In general, examinations are done to assess questions pertaining to the authenticity, source, content, or age of a document.

What is the HFHE report?

The Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach report, or just the HFHE Report, was produced by the Expert Working Group for Human Factors in Handwriting Examination.

I was fortunate to be invited to be a part of this expert working group. The membership spanned various scientific disciplines and included forensic document examiners, lawyers, cognitive scientists (including human factors specialists), among others.  A more lengthy discussion of this can be found here.

The EWG “…conducted a scientific assessment of the effects of human factors on forensic handwriting examination” and produced a report that “…provides a comprehensive discussion of human factors as they relate to all aspects of handwriting examination, from documenting discriminating features to reporting results and testifying in court.” Of course, the report also provides extensive recommendations aimed at improving the practice in the future.  Specifically, the work was produced “…to encourage and enhance efforts to apply human factors principles to forensic science applications, reduce the risk of error, and improve the practice of forensic handwriting examination.”

It should be noted that the EWG was supported by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences (OIFS), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Programs Office.

Formal citation: Taylor, M., Bishop, B., Burkes, T., Caligiuri, M., Found, B., Bird, C., Grose, W., Logan, L., Melson, K., Merlino, M., Miller, L., Mohammed, L., Morris, J., Osborn, J., Osborne, N., Ostrum, R. B., Saunders, C., Shappell, S., Sheets, H., Srihari, S., Stoel, R., Vastrick, T., Waltke, H. and Will, E. (2021), Forensic Handwriting Examination and Human Factors: Improving the Practice Through a Systems Approach, NIST Interagency/Internal Report (NISTIR), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD.

What are common methods of ‘forgery’?

As a rule, most FDEs refrain from using the word ‘forgery’ in their work.

To most people a ‘forgery’ refers to the production of a false document; an illegitimate document, signature, banknote, or work of art, for example. That concept is correct in everyday use, but the word also has a legal connotation that extends further.

In most legal contexts, ‘forgery’ involves “the creation of a false written document or alteration of a genuine one, with the intent to defraud.” It is the latter part of that definition, relating to ‘intent’, that bothers some FDEs. To a degree, their concern relates, in part, to the traditional approach taken by FDEs where a conclusion addresses the propositions directly (i.e., the document is or is not a forgery, with some degree of probability thrown in for good measure), rather than speaking to the evidence given the propositions (i.e., as is done in the logical approach to evidence evaluation). 

Of course, it is impossible to speak directly to the issue of the ‘intent to defraud’, regardless of which approach is used. That is something the Court must address based on all the evidence presented to them. As a result, rather than using the word ‘forgery’, examiners will talk about the manner in which a document has been produced and determine whether or not it is consistent with the legitimate production methods and events.1 

Now, having said the above, the most common methods encountered in handwriting cases where ‘forgery’ is of concern to the Court would be a tracing or free-hand simulation of writing on a document, either extended writing or a signature. Other forms of fraudulent document often encountered involve an alteration to some facet of an otherwise legitimate document, or the production of a completely illegitimate document (i.e., a spurious or counterfeit document).