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:

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

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.

Do Forensic Document Examiners testify in court?

Forensic document examiners have testified as expert witnesses in various courts, and other judicial hearings, for many years. The field was recognized by the courts around the world a very long time ago and, in general, FDE testimony is well-received.

However, as with any type of forensic expertise, the decision to permit an expert to testify in a given court proceeding is made by the judge/adjudicator on a case-by-case basis. The Court must decide whether or not to admit expert evidence based upon a number of factors including the qualifications of the expert, the nature of the evidence, the need to have expert evidence presented and so on.  There are various legal standards (jurisdiction-specific) that must be met so that an examiner can be qualified as an expert and permitted to give testimony.

Check with the examiner to ensure they can fulfill those requirements.

How can I be sure my examiner is really qualified and competent?

Competency is a huge issue for any forensic service. Ensuring your examiner is actually qualified and competent is not a trivial thing.  And, it’s absolutely critical that you do this!

First and foremost, ask questions.  Challenge every aspect of that’s person’s credentials:  their training, their certification, the equipment they use, the methods they apply to casework, etc.

Their training should conform to the Scientific Working Group for Forensic Document Examination (SWGDOC) Standard for Minimum Training Requirements for Forensic Document Examiners.  That is, the examiner’s training:

  • should be “the equivalent of a minimum of 24 months full-time training under the supervision of a principal trainer”.  That means at least two years’ worth (i.e., over 4,000 hrs) of face-to-face instruction with direct oversight by the trainer.
  • should have been given by a principal trainer who:
    • was fully qualified as a forensic document examiner;
    • had successfully completed this type of training program (i.e., equivalent of a minimum of 24 months full-time supervised training);
    • had been trained in the topics of instruction in the SWGDOC standard (see Section 7); and
    • had a minimum of at least five years full-time, post-training experience as a forensic document examiner.
  • should be primarily in-person training; not solely or primarily based on distance learning and/or periodic meetings with the principal trainer.  Short courses and internet-based training options are acceptable only as supplemental training.  Regular, preferably daily, in-person oversight is necessary so that the trainer can fully assess a trainee’s methods and thought processes and ensure the accuracy of their conclusions.

Additionally, the examiner should have an earned baccalaureate degree or equivalent from an accredited college or university.

If your examiner does not recognize and accept the standard for minimum training in forensic document examiners published by SWGDOC, you should be very wary about the nature and quality of their training.

Professional certification is a great credential BUT you must look for someone who has been certified by an independent certifying body that is not affiliated with any specific training entity.  I discuss this topic at length in another blog post, however a good resource in this regard is the Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB) in the USA.  The FSAB 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).”  In other words, the FSAB accredits the bodies that certify examiners.   

To that end, I personally recommend examiners who have been certified by the ABFDE.  The ABFDE was the first independent professional certifying body for FDE work having been founded in 1977.  It is the only accredited certifying body with Diplomates employed as document examiners in federal, state/provincial, and large municipal crime laboratories in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere.  Many of their Diplomates also offer private, independent FDE services.  Related blog post:  Certification – ABFDE.

The examiner should have a fully-equipped and well-maintained laboratory suited to the services they provide.  The basic equipment for a forensic document examination laboratory consists of:

  • Stereoscopic binocular microscope
    • Specialized lighting for the scope
  • Spectral analysis equipment
  • Electrostatic detection device

One last note: graphology is a field of study that purports to assess personality from handwriting. Graphology is NOT equivalent to forensic document examination and is not accepted in courts within Canada or the USA. I strongly recommend avoiding any examiner with graphology training and background unless they also have the required FDE training as outlined above. Many ‘purported’ examiners come from this domain and lack appropriate FDE training. Please note that many graphologists downplay their training to minimize challenges relating to this issue. 

What is Graphology? Are you a graphologist?

A common definition for graphology is simply ‘the examination of handwriting to assess personality or character traits of the writer’.

The SWGDOC site states that examiners must be “actively engaged in the practice of forensic document examination” with the following explanation relative to graphology:

Forensic document examination is not synonymous with graphology. Graphology or graphoanalysis attempts to predict character traits from handwriting examination. Some graphologists call themselves handwriting analysts or document examiners and are therefore confused with FDEs. In U.S. v. Bourgeois, 950 F. 2d 980 (5‘h Cir. 1992), the court rejected the testimony of a proffered handwriting examiner, in part, because the individual’s training was completed through a correspondence school and its strong emphasis on graphoanalysis. It also pointed out that the witness was not certified by the ABFDE.ASTM also differentiates forensic document examination from graphology. Standard E444-98 states, “[f]orensic document examination does not involve the employment of calligraphic or engrossing skills, nor does it involve a study of handwriting in an attempt to create a personality profile or otherwise analyze or judge the writer’s personality or character.”

Under that definition, I am definitely not a graphologist. A forensic document examiner examines handwriting to address issues of potential authorship, not personality. Of course, forensic document examination covers a lot more things than just authorship of writing.

NOTE:  various terms are used and considered to be synonymous to graphology, including graphometry, graphometrics, graphanalysis, or graphoanalyis.

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”.

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

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.