What can a forensic document examiner do for me?

If you are asking this question, I assume you have some type of ‘document’ that is in dispute or being questioned. The answer to what can be done for you depends upon 1) who you are, and 2) what question(s) you need answered.

who are YOU?

Immediate clients may be police investigators, legal counsel, corporations, or, in select cases, private individuals. Some examiners deal with all of these clients while others have a specific interest area. For example, examiners that work in publicly-funded laboratories often have a relatively restricted mandate of service (i.e., to their own agency or to a particular branch of government bodies/agencies). Examiners working privately will take cases from any most clients.

It is critical to note that no matter who the immediate client might be, the ultimate client is always the court. In fact, the reason forensic document examiners exist is to help the trier-of-fact understand the meaning of evidence taking the form of a questioned document. The examiner’s expertise is needed to inform the trier about what the evidence means in terms of the matter at hand.

This means that my duty is to the court before any other party, including the one paying the bill—even when the matter has not yet, and may never, make it to a trial or hearing. It is often said that you don’t buy an examiner’s opinion; you pay for their time and must live with the results, whatever they may be.

what question(s) do you need answered?

Investigators benefit from FDE advice when it helps them sort out what is likely to have happened in a given situation. Similarly, lawyers who must argue a case before the trier need to understand what the evidence means in terms of their own arguments and those of opposing counsel. The expert examiner can provide guidance, both verbal and written, in the form of an expert opinion.

Examiners will address questions of interest relating to a variety of disputed documents, such as: wills, deeds, medical records, income tax records, time sheets, contracts, loan agreements, election lists, cheques, anonymous letters, and so on.1 Those questions may relate to source attribution, manner of production, occurrences to documents, or other issues.

Examiners will also conduct reviews of casework done by other examiners. Such reviews may take the form of a formal re-evaluation of the evidence or focus on methods used and their application in the case at hand.

In addition, lawyers can benefit from an examiner’s knowledge of specialized literature in the field. Examiners may assist lawyers in preparing meaningful direct examination questions for their own experts or for cross-examination of an opposing expert.

When in doubt, contact me to find out what can be done for you. However, when doing so be careful to avoid providing unnecessary, or potentially biasing, information.

Do you only accept cases from a lawyer?

In general, yes, I only accept a case submissions from a lawyer, solicitor, or barrister.  I will explain why that is done in a minute, but there are a few exceptions to this rule.

I may accept cases from someone other than the above (e.g., usually a party directly or personally involved in the matter) so long as the following conditions apply:

  1. It is NOT a matter before the courts,
  2. It is NOT a matter intended to go before the courts, and
  3. It is NOT a matter with any legal or judicial implications.

Now, this might seem to rule out a lot of things and it does.  The kind of submission I will accept directly from a private citizen (i.e., non-lawyer/non-barrister) are those aimed at genealogical research, personal interest or education, and similar things.  If you aren’t sure about this, please ask and I will clarify.

For most matters a submission must be arranged and executed through a lawyer, solicitor, or barrister. I will, however, consider a contract if struck with some businesses or a government department/agency of well-established reputation.

It is important that the contract for services be formed between a lawyer or law firm (as a representative) and myself because it helps to ensure:

  1. a professional relationship in all matters,
  2. an arms-length arrangement relative to any party with a personal interest in the outcome, and
  3. there is minimal and controlled interaction to avoid introducing biasing information into the process. Please note that, as a potential expert witness, I must do everything possible to minimize any bias that may affect the outcome in casework.

This might seem unnecessary and even problematic, but it really does work to the benefit of all parties. If you have any questions, please let me know.

From whom do you accept cases? Who are your clients?

Cases are accepted from public entities (e.g., police, investigative bodies, government, etc.) as well as from private individuals.  However, clients who are private individuals must be represented by a lawyer, with very few exceptions. 

For all matters that are, or may be, related to some judicial proceedings of a criminal or civil nature, I will accept submissions only through a lawyer or solicitor representing a party. As a rule, I will not deal directly with parties or individuals personally involved in such proceedings. If you do not presently have a lawyer, I suggest you retain the services of one prior to obtaining the services of any forensic document examiner.

This approach is taken to ensure an arms-length relationship with the involved parties.  It is also important to limit exposure to unnecessary, and potentially biasing, information about the situation at play.  To ensure that such information is not provided all potential clients and their representatives must review our submission guidelines before initiating contact with this office.

For non-legal matters, such as genealogical research or similar issues, my services may be engaged directly by anyone or any institution, public or private.

In addition to the above, all service requests are reviewed before acceptance for potential ‘conflict’.  A ‘conflict check’ must be successfully completed prior to any formal engagement of services. 

What is a ‘conflict check’?

A ‘conflict check’ is a term used for a preliminary process of checking to see if there is any conflict of interest present prior to any work agreement being reached with a client. For legal reasons, it is necessary to ensure there is no conflict of interest involved when work is commissioned. This refers to both real/substantive and perceived conflicts.

A commission for work cannot and will not be accepted if there is a real or perceived conflict in any of the following conditions:

  1. Conflict (real, perceived, or potential) with an existing (different) client who has already retained my services (i.e., one from whom I have a signed agreement and paid retainer fee), and
  2. Conflict (real, perceived, or potential) with my work as an employee of the Government of Canada; specifically, the Canada Border Services Agency, but not limited to that agency (i.e., more generally, the interests of the Government of Canada).

In order to conduct a conflict check the client must provide me with the following information:

  1. Your complete contact information,
  2. The file or case caption, in full,
  3. Names of all parties involved, including attorneys and law firms

Once the conflict check has cleared, I will provide my present fee schedule, a complete current CV and an Agreement for Expert Services, if one has been requested.

Please note that receipt of that information and form only indicates there is no conflict at the time of contact. It does not constitute ‘retained’ status. Only after receipt of the signed Agreement and nonrefundable retainer am I considered officially retained, and therefore unavailable to the other side should I be contacted by them.

I (Mr. Ostrum) may not be designated or in any way indicated as a retained expert unless payment of the nonrefundable retainer and a signed Agreement for Expert Services (available upon request) has been received.

Note: “Future” conflicts may develop which preclude the continuation of services. If such an event occurs, the existing contract will be null and void. Fees will be charged for services rendered to date, but any excess payment will be returned should that occur.

What is a document?

In today’s society, everyone knows what a document is.

After all, documents are used routinely for all manner of purpose. Documents that most people would recognize include typed, hand-printed, handwritten, or produced using commercial processes. Letters, contracts, newspapers, magazines, and all manner of items are documents. A common definition might be something like:

a paper or set of papers with written or printed information, especially of an official type

Cambridge Dictionary Online

Forensic document examiners, however, apply a broader definition. We define a document as “any material bearing marks, signs, or symbols, whether visible or not, intended to convey a message or meaning to someone.” Clearly, that definition includes all normal documents, but extends it quite a bit.

This means a few things.

First, almost anything can become a document whether or not it was intended to serve as a document in the first place.

Second, a document examiner must be trained to deal with a lot of different instruments, marking materials, and substrates.

Third, a document examiner must be trained to assess a wide variety of events that may affect different types of documents, before, during, or after their initial production.

All in all, it contributes to the complexity of the work of a forensic document examiner.

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—

Can you recover erased writings?

“Erased writing” (or, an ‘erasure’) refers to a written entry/ies which has been removed in an attempt to get rid of the original information, either to simply delete it or replace it with something else.

An erasure may be achieved manually/mechanically using an eraser, some type of scraping tool, or using an adhesive lifting process (for select types of material). Alternatively, erasures may be achieved chemically through the application of a ‘bleaching’ solution, or some type of lifting agent.

Often the idea behind an erasure is to remove the information, ideally, leaving no significant indication any information was ever present, or that an erasure has occurred. This can be contrasted to an obliteration where the information is covered or masked, often in a relatively obvious manner.

With most erasures there will be physical or chemical signs that one has been done, albeit sometimes very subtle and difficult to see. At the same time, detecting this type of event is one thing. Recovering or deciphering the original information is another, often much more challenging, prospect.

How is proof of specimen material achieved?

Specimen material is needed for any comparison process and, to have that material admitted into evidence, it must be ‘proven’ to a trier (i.e., judge or adjudicator) who decides whether not to admit the samples. Basically, this means the specimen samples must be shown, in some way, to have been produced by someone or something in particular. Adequate ‘proof’ of origin is necessary for them to be used, and relied upon, as examples of writing (or output) from a specific source.

This issue manifests whenever the matter proceeds to a trial or adjudication. However, knowing that this is a concern, and knowing that such information will have to be given as ‘proof’ of the history or origin of a document, consideration should always be given to it from the start of the process. There is no benefit to working with unproven or dubious material. In other words, the issue of ‘proof’ of source should be considered and addressed for every sample of specimen material used in any comparison.

So, who needs to do this? In brief, ’proof’ of a document must come from some other party, and not from the forensic document examiner, as a general rule. This issue is something the client, or their legal representative, should be considering as they collect or obtain specimen material for examination purposes.

How can a specimen sample be ‘proven’? Some ways to prove authorship of a document include:

  1. simple admission by the author of the document when asked if they produced it;
  2. testimony of someone who saw the writing done (i.e., a witness to the writing). This applies, for example, when obtaining specimen writing of a “request” nature;
  3. testimony of someone who heard the writer admit that they wrote the document. This could be #1 above, but also applies in a more historical sense;
  4. testimony of someone “intimately familiar” with a person’s writing (e.g., a husband, wife, or business partner may be able to provide such testimony for the other); or
  5. as normal and accepted practice for any particular type of document. For example, business documents routinely prepared in the name of a person, or signed by that person, may generally be used as examples of their writing so long as the documents were produced in the normal course of business and have not been challenged in the past by the person named.

Remember: The client (investigator or lawyer) has the responsibility of providing proof of this nature to the court, through one of the above means. This often means that other witnesses will need to be called who can personally attest to the matter based on their personal knowledge. It is not the responsibility of the examiner to do this (unless, of course, the examiner was involved in the acquisition of the samples; e.g., obtaining request specimen samples).

Related questions:

Can examinations be done away from the lab?

Yes, in select circumstances a ‘remote’ examination may be done. By ‘remote’ I mean at some location other than in my personal laboratory.1 However, it is important to understand up-front that it is always preferable to undertake examinations in a proper laboratory setting where appropriate equipment is available, proper examination conditions are assured, and there are fewer time constraints as a rule.

If the material can be submitted for examination at the lab, it is always a better choice. 

The most common justification for a remote examination is to gain access to documents that would be otherwise inaccessible.2 For example, some items are only available at a lawyer’s office, at a courthouse (if already presented into evidence or being held there for some other reason), or at another examiner’s laboratory. Many institutions, for a variety of reasons, but often relating to security of the items, do not wish to release original documents to anyone outside their control. Instead, they will offer copies, sometimes certified and sometimes not. As noted elsewhere, working with reproductions is always less than ideal and may result in an inconclusive opinion simply because the information provided by the copies is too limited.

To address such issues a remote examination may be proposed. The client must understand that remote examinations are not ideal and may be an expensive proposition. Certain types of analyses or examination are possible using portable equipment with only limited or minimal impact on the outcome; other types of analyses will be affected and still others may be entirely precluded. 

To minimize problems during a remote examination, it is important to arrange for a private, quiet room away from other activities. That room should have regular (and reliable) electrical supply, good lighting, a comfortable chair, and a solid table or desk large enough to hold the items and equipment to be used. 

Beyond this, sufficient time must be provided. Note that the time required for an examination depends on many factors. However, any time an examiner is ‘rushed’, they will have to adjust the examination accordingly and this may have a negative impact on the end result.

Finally, remote examinations usually require travel as well as appropriate accommodations and meals for the duration of any stay. Such costs can add considerably to the final tally for the service. 

To determine whether or not a remote examination is warranted in your case, and for an estimate of the costs involved, please contact us to discuss the matter in detail.

What is a specimen/exemplar?

The words ‘known’, ‘exemplar’, ‘specimen’ are essentially equivalent and used to describe materials or samples of ‘proven’ provenance or origin. There are many things that can be determined from questioned material entirely on its own, but questions relating to any source attribution require samples of a ‘proven’ nature, (i.e., known, specimen, or exemplar material) for comparison purposes. 

Specimen samples must be obtained by the client in most situations. Along with the questioned sample they would then be provided to the examiner. 

Obtaining appropriate and adequate specimen samples is critical to an effective examination. Please contact the examiner to discuss the collection and submission of such material PRIOR to obtaining them. 

There are two main types of specimen samples that may be considered: ‘collected’ and ‘request’. Pros and cons of each are discussed below:

Collected samples are exemplars produced in the course of routine day-to-day activities by the suspect individual or device. 

The first advantage of collected samples is they are representative of the normal, routine behaviour of the individual/device and are not (likely) to be disguised or distorted in some way. This refers to any sample that was produced in the course of daily business or routine, without consideration for later examination. Another advantage is that such samples may be historical in nature (i.e,, having been produced on some date in the past) and representative of the behaviour at that time (e.g., handwriting or signature samples for a deceased person). Yet another advantage is the potential to locate exemplars under specific conditions or circumstances that cannot be replicated at the present time. On the ‘negative’ side of things, collected samples may not be completely comparable to the questioned samples in terms of the precise conditions or content of the material in question. While the samples may represent the individual/device’s ‘habitual’ behaviour at the time of production, the samples will not help if the questioned material is of a different type, nature, or content. The biggest ‘negative’ for collected samples is proof of source. It is important that some ‘proof’ of the source of the sample be possible. This can be achieved in many ways but it something the client needs to consider; it cannot be done by the examiner.

Request samples  are those produced at the request of the investigator (or client) and for the express purpose of being examined. The key advantage of these samples is that they can be customized to provide comparability to the questioned samples in terms of content, nature, and (sometimes) conditions. As such, request samples often provide the best direct comparability to questioned samples. Proof of source is also a non-issue as it can be given by the person obtaining the samples. On the ‘negative’ side of things, request samples may not be available — either because the individual refuses to provide any, or they are not able to do so (i.e., a person has passed away or the device is not longer in-service). In addition, samples that are not contemporaneous may not display the same features/habits simply due to changes over time. Finally, request samples may not be able to replicate every aspect of the original conditions. 

Ultimately, collected and request samples are complementary to one another. So an ideal submission will have both types. 

One last note:  in some situations it may be possible to have the examiner obtain the specimen ‘request’ samples from a suspect, or to assist in the process. Doing so would generally require a ‘remote’ visit. If this is desired, please discuss the matter beforehand with the examiner. 

Related FAQs: